Leila Barros, star in the Philippines

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September 2000. Leila is back. Yes, the fine-looking volleyball player from Brazil who became the crowd's darling in the initial staging of World Women's Volleyball Grand Prix in Manila last year is here to wow the Filipino fans once again.

Leila Barros heads the Brazilian team, which competes in the Manila leg of World Women's Volleyball Grand Prix 2000 from August 18 to 27. Of course, other lookers are coming, including Italy's Maurizia Cacciatori and Francesca Piccinini, Americans Stacy Sykora and Danielle Scott and Russians Elena Godina and Liobov Chachlova. There are also a number of eye-catchers from South Korea, Cuba, China and Japan.

Brazil and Italy see action on the opening salvo while Russia takes on South Korea in a blockbuster curtain raiser on Aug. 18 at the 7,000-seat Philsports in Pasig City. This international competition is deemed as a preview of the Olympic volleyball event, which will be held in Sydney next month.

While the Grand Prix promises to be a showcase of world-class volleyball, the event, at the same time, sets the stage for the display of charm, grace, beauty and feminine power by Leila and her kind. The venue is expected to draw predominantly Filipino male audience, who came in multitude to watch the 1999 staging.

Leila, a five-foot-eight player, led her team to the first runner-up finish in the 1999 event, which was won by Russia. Brazil won the crown in 1994, 1996 and 1998. The Filipino audience used to ignore the game of volleyball until they saw Leila spike the ball with the elegance and style no one else could show.

Inside the court, this 28-year-old Brazilian beauty is noted for her intensity and leaping ability, which enables her to penetrate the stonewall defense of her six foot rivals. Behind the pretty face is her seriousness and sheer determination to win each game. She moves with the agility of Martina Hingis and the form of Anna Kournikova. And when she smiles, after delivering a thunderous spike, no one could be happier than the male audience.

Not a few Filipino men fell in love with her flash images on television. Some of those who were lucky to see her personally waved placards proposing marriage, not knowing that the young, otherwise innocent looking star player has been married for four years. How sad! Just the same, Leila moves and jumps with the charm of any 16-year-old girl "oozing with sensuality", as one sports columnist put it.

No one could disagree with Inquirer columnist Al Mendoza when he said that Leila is "possessed of a whistle-bait figure that hides a power that eternally strikes fear on the enemy during every game. She has the face of a near-Roman goddess, a nose so well chiseled, lips so full and lusciously innocent that Brooke Shields would suddenly look like a poor imitation if placed beside her. But underneath that facade resides a cache of bombs that would explode during a volleyball game in staccato fashion, in varying styles and crescendos. A southpaw, Leila can blast you with a spike detonated with the full might of a TNT, or a hang-time smother delivered so gracefully a la Michael Jordan."

Leila became a part of the Brazil National Volleyball Team in 1991. Since then, she has reached a legendary role much admired not only in her country but also in Asia. ''I always have a big fan following wherever I go,'' Leila said in a 1999 interview. "But here in Manila, it's different. The adulation is simply terrific. Adorablé!''

She attributes her success to hard work, claiming she practices six to eight hours a day. ''Hard work, hard work and more hard work. There is no substitute to hard work,'' she was quoted as saying.

Leila describes herself as a shy and stubborn woman. She said that she is surprised at the way people look up to her since she does not find herself beautiful, although she admits she has a pair of exotic eyes not common in Brazil. She watches American films and recalls Al Pacino as her favorite movie actor. She listens to Rock n' Roll, and likes the music of U2 and Rolling Stones. She drinks only "a little bit" of red wine and prefers to stay at home when not in a game.

She says her mother is the most important person to her. To her fans all over the world, she has this to say: "It's very beautiful, the feeling people has for me. I'd like to say thank you from my heart. I will never forget that until my death. I will stop playing, but I will remember the days to be a mark in my life of volleyball. I will miss the fans in Asia. Everybody treats me very well. I will never forget."

For the Filipino audience, the feeling is mutual. At a time the Philippines is troubled by many problems, all it needs is a little inspiration from someone like Leila, who reminds us of the beauty of life.

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