Born María Isabel Fernández in the tiny city of Fuentes de Andalucía, Marisa Fernandez stands tall, not only literally, but also metaphorically, as one of the most skillful players Spanish volleyball ever produced. So when we got a chance to talk to her, we jumped in it.
What were your first impressions of Baku and what were your expectations before you came?
I was here five years ago, when Spanish national team played against Azerbaijan at the World Cup Qualification stage in Baku. The city has grown a lot since then; it is a big, new, modern and very cosmopolitan city and I like it!
Spanish tourists who visited Baku have compared the city to Andalusia for its mixture of European and Middle Eastern styles. Do you think this comparison is accurate?
Actually, it is accurate! In Andalusia, where I am from, we have a great mix of cultures that has enriched us, our music, art, architecture. There has been a big Arabic influence in Andalusia.
Spain has a strong volleyball league, but somehow Spanish national team has struggled internationally. What do you think is the problem here?
I won't call it a problem, but Spanish volleyball is still growing and we need some time to adapt and to adjust. Also, Europe is a continent with a great volleyball culture, with a lot of strong teams and to qualify for the World championship is a very difficult task.
You played volleyball in Spain, Greece and Italy. How would you compare these leagues?
The level of the Italian league is higher than Greek or Spanish leagues and Greek league is stronger than Spanish Superliga. But my Greek team Panathinaikos was also very well organized in terms of club structure and facilities. When it comes to organizing sport events, providing great entertainment and attracting masses, I think, Greece and Italy are well ahead of Spain.
How popular is volleyball in Spain anyway? Would people recognize you if you walked down the street in, let's say, Madrid or Valencia?
Even though there are a lot of volleyball fans in Spain, this is not the most popular sport in the country. If I walked down the street in a big city like Madrid or Valencia, probably only few people would recognize me, but if I walked somewhere in Andalusia more people would know who I am.
Are you a football fan? Do you have a favorite team or player?
I am not a football fanatic. I like the sport, but I'm not a fanatic. I like FC Barcelona, because they have very good players and they play great as a team.
Where were you when Spain won the World Cup this summer?
When it happened, I was with my national team, playing in the European League.
What is your fondest volleyball memory?
My first year away from home, the year when I joined Greek Panathinaikos. To be part of such a big club was a wonderful experience. Greek fans were amazing - having 3,000 people chant your name is the most rewarding experience for an athlete. And, of course, my on-court success is also very memorable - Greek championship, Greek national cup, second place in the Challenge Cup, Greek All-Star game, my Greek "MVP" awards and my "Best Attacker" award in the Challenge Cup.
In Igtisadchi you play alongside Venezuelan Aleoscar Iriarte and Argentinian Yael Castiglione. Does it help to have other Spanish speaking players around?
Not really. I like having people who speak Spanish around, but our team is predominantly English speaking, and I like talking with everyone, not just people who speak my language.
Do you have any favorite place in Baku? Where do you hang out?
In my time free I like to walk around with my husband and our Spanish friends. We visit Fakhri Khiyaban ["The Alley of Honor" is the national memorial complex and cemetery - Azerivolley.com] - a beautiful place that I like a lot for its serenity and quiet dignity. But my most favorite place is in my house with my husband. When I am home I forget about everything, and I can just enjoy the tranquility and peace of mind with the man I love.
Can you dance Flamenco?
Unfortunately, I can not dance flamenco, but I love listening to flamenco music, and I love watching professionals dance.
Is there anything you wanted to say to the readers of Azerivolley.com?
I wanted to thank them for their hospitality! Azerbaijani people are very nice and hospitable, and when you are a foreigner living in another country to have people there support you is very important!
Desde España con Amor - From Spain with love.