The qualifying competition in North, Central America and the Caribbean for the 2013 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup kicks off in the Bahamas on Tuesday. A total of 11 teams will take part, the biggest field of competitors in the tournament’s history – three more than in 2011 and almost twice as many as in the inaugural competition six years ago.
The Bahamas may well be a holiday hot-spot, with its sun-kissed shores and warm blue waters, but the eleven teams are all business at the moment, taking aim at only two spots on offer to the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, which takes place in Tahiti later this year.
The hopeful Bahamians find themselves in a tricky section for the group stages, drawn alongside USA, who have a score to settle after years of stagnation, Guatemala and Puerto Rico. While the hosts hope to spring a surprise, the Americans will be the team to beat in Group A. Coached by the experienced Eddie Soto, the States have won the region’s showpiece twice before, though not since 2006 and 2007. The Americans also want to shake off memories of their last international tournament, when they lost all three of their games in January in the Copa America in Brazil.
USA are led by veterans Francis Farberoff, Brandon Taguinod and Yuri Morales, who were all in the Stars and Stripes side that last took part in a FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup back in 2007. Having reached the first three Beach Soccer world finals, in 2005, 2006 and 2007, the Americans are now hoping for a revival.
Team Bahamas is led by captain Gavin Christie and boasts members of the island's senior national football team, like Lesley St. Fleur and Nesley Jean. “We’re just getting ourselves as ready as we can be for the qualifiers,” said Christie, who has been part of an unprecedented and exhaustive preparatory campaign ahead of the first-ever qualifying competition staged in the Caribbean. “So we can be ready to compete and show what we can do.”
El Salvador, Mexico on song
Mexico, who finished second in the 2007 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, are the top dogs in Group B and will be favourites to defend the title they won last year in Puerto Vallarta. The El Tri beach boys line up against Canada, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana in the section in hopes of becoming the only team in the region to lift the crown three times.
The Mexicans are the highest-ranked team in the competition and coach Ramon Raya is hoping for more success in sunny Nassau. “We are practicing and working hard twice every day,” said the Beach Soccer veteran. “We are the champions and we have been in three World Cups so we have to work to maintain that legacy,” added the coach, who took his team to the Bahamas a week in advance in order to tweak the final preparations.
The Canadians, for their part, are hoping for the best. “We know the competition at this tournament will not be easy – and we can expect a particularly difficult match against Mexico,” admitted head coach and defender Djamel Laraabi.
The frontrunners in a three-team Group C are El Salvador, one of the fastest-improving teams in the CONCACAF zone. They won the title once already and reached all the way to fourth place at the last FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in Italy in 2011. The Salvadorans will line up against fellow Central Americans Costa Rica and Jamaica hoping that their outstanding player, Frank Velasquez – who won the Bronze Ball and Boot at the 2011 world finals – can do the job once more for the up-and-comers.
The champion and runners-up from the CONCACAF showpiece will reach the seventh FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, to be played in Tahiti over ten days (18-28 September) in Papeete. Iran, United Arab Emirates and Japan have already qualified from the Asian zone, while from Europe, Netherlands, Spain, defending world champions Russia and Ukraine will take part. Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil will represent South America, joining hosts Tahiti who qualified automatically.