Familiar trio head up Asian contenders

Asian qualifying for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Tahiti 2013 provided action and goals aplenty, typical of the round-ball game on sand. The five-day beach football jamboree on the specially constructed venue at Katara Beach in Doha, Qatar, witnessed both a stream of goals and a host of tight games, but at the conclusion it was three familiar names that stamped their tickets to the world stage.

Iran, Japan and United Arab Emirates will represent AFC on Polynesia’s idyllic sands next September, having become familiar faces among the globe’s elite. The trio have collectively featured 13 times across the six editions of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup. While Asia’s representatives are yet to taste success at the tournament, continued growth combined with a high-quality conclusion to the tournament in Doha, suggests the continent’s big fish could be ready to make a splash.

New faces and keen contests
Following the initial draw for the tournament Afghanistan, Philippines and Thailand joined the list of hopefuls making for a 16-team tournament. The significant jump from the 11 nations which featured at the last qualifiers two years ago, setting the scene nicely as the combatants prepared to take to the 3,000 capacity state-of the-art facility on the shoreline in the Qatari capital.

Any uncertainty about the quantity of action to be offered up to the spectators was hastily put to rest on the opening day as 84 goals were scored across the eight matches. Unfortunately for Philippines, continental big guns Iran were in relentless mood and inflicted a record-breaking 20-0 scoreline on the outclassed south-east Asians. There was, however, good news for one of the late additions as Afghanistan, in their first-ever qualifier, defeated Qatar 7-3. Australia, meanwhile, claimed what proved to be a pivotal result in their march to the semi-finals with a 6-4 defeat of Oman, veterans of Ravenna 2011, with former A-League player Panny Nikas bagging four goals.

One of the most surprising challenges came from Lebanon who pushed Japan all the way before the World Cup veterans edged home in an epic contest by the odd goal in 11. Lebanon captain Haisam Fattal then bagged an impressive treble as the Cedars enjoyed a 5-3 win over 2009 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup finalists Bahrain. Despite Iran’s pedigree on the sand, the Persians were forced to come from two goals down to secure their last four berth with a 4-2 win over a valiant China PR.

And then there were four…
After three days of intense group action, it came down to four teams vying for three tickets to Tahiti 2013 amid what proved to be some raucous support from the stands. And the final two days of action provided some classic action with three matches decided by a single goal, with the final needing penalties to break a high-scoring deadlock in what proved a fitting denouement to the tournament.

Iran became the first side to earn a ticket to Tahiti 2013 after edging UAE 3-2 in an exciting, hard-fought semi-final, in a rematch of 2011's third place play-off in Muscat. The second semi-final smouldered before bursting into life in the final period with three quickfire goals but when the smoke settled Japan were 2-1 victors and on their way to an unprecedented seventh FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, although that is a record that Brazil and Argentina have the chance to equal next month.

The most drama, however, was left to the final day. United Arab Emirates saw off Australia 3-2 with the help of a goal after just three seconds, while at the other end of the match the Aussies narrowly failed to equalise with the ball deemed to have hit the net momentarily after the final whistle.

The final saw Iran stage a remarkable comeback from 6-3 to draw level, with extra time unable to end the impasse. It then took ten penalties to separate the sides as Iran ended the reign of Japan who had won the past two Asian crowns. Moslem Mesigar, whose late equaliser ensured extra time in the final, finished top goalscorer with 11 goals. Japan’s Osmar Moreira was named most valuable player, while Australia’s Simon Jaeger was deemed to be the tournament’s best goalkeeper.