Beach Soccer on the up in the Lowlands

Although the 2013 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup will have a fresh feel as Tahiti welcomes the world to the Pacific’s first FIFA tournament, it will very much be an experienced line-up of nations treading French Polynesia’s pristine sand this September. Leaving aside next month’s Oceania qualifying tournament, which could yet unveil a new face as the 16-nation field is finalised, the only tournament debutants in Tahiti will be Netherlands and Paraguay.

For the Netherlands qualifying for Tahiti 2013 was a triumph in itself, and evidence that Beach Soccer is very much on an upward trajectory in the Lowlands. In fact it is almost a year to the day since the Oranje enjoyed breakthrough success by snatching one of four tickets on offer in the hugely competitive European qualifying competition. The Netherlands won through to Tahiti along with world champions Russia, Ukraine and Spain. To do so they had to see off, among others, former global kings France.

Building for success
With an appearance on the world stage assured the Netherlands, under passionate coach Niels Kokmeijer, have set about preparing thoroughly for their debut. In April, the Netherlands made the long trip to Tahiti for a taste of French Polynesia and its environs, literally a world away from those in Western Europe. Though highly competitive, the Oranje departed the South Pacific without a win in the three games, leaving Kokmeijer saying: “We have played three games against a very good opponent, from which we can draw many lessons.”

The Dutch were promoted to Europe’s Beach Soccer A-Group last year, and just last month won their first tournament at that level. Kokmeijer’s charges impressively topped a four-team group featuring Ukraine, Romania and hosts Italy. Netherlands will test themselves further next week with another four-nation event in Sweden.

It is a case of making hay while the sun shines for European nations such as the Netherlands who, as Kokmeijer stated to FIFA.com “only have three months when we can practise outside.” It is, however, a challenge that the Dutch are meeting head on. “We start in January in a small indoor facility, though this is far from optimal. In May until August we train outside. We train two to three times a week, and have three to five trainings camps a year.

“In the beginning of each season we are dealing with the fact that we have players who haven’t had sand time for five months. So every year we have to start over again.”

Oranje aiming to shine brightly
Kokmeijer knows a thing or two about the ups and downs of football. Now 35, Kokmeijer enjoyed a professional career with Volendam, Heerenveen, Haarlem and Go Ahead Eagles, only to suffer a career-ending broken leg in a high profile on-field incident at just 26 years of age.

Now five years into his national team coaching tenure. Kokmeijer is doing everything in his power to prepare his side for Tahiti 2013. Following a lengthy summer preparation during the European summer, the challenge will be to maintain that momentum on French Polynesia’s warm sands. “So far I have a good feeling where our team is at,” says Kokmeijer.

Last month’s draw pitted the Dutch against Argentina, El Salvador and the yet-to-be-determined Oceania champion. Kokmeijer describes the group as one “where we have chances”. Though he, perhaps unsurprisingly, lists Argentina and El Salvador as favourites, Kokmeijer says the Netherlands’ aim is to progress beyond the group stage. Previous FIFA Beach Soccer World Cups, however, suggest that anything is possible in the knockout stage.

And would significant success in Tahiti provide a boost to beach soccer in the Netherlands? “Recent years have seen us improve year by year and good results are now becoming more regular instead of incidental,” Kokmeijer said. “So I'm happy how we have improved and, of course, a good result will help us to progress even further.”