When it comes to negotiating the challenges of playing at an international tournament, few have a better grasp of the intricacies involved than Joaquin Alonso. The coach has guided Spain to participation at five FIFA Beach Soccer World Cups and laced up his boots as a player, albeit on grass, at the 1982 FIFA World Cup Spain™ and the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament in Moscow in 1980.
While offering cautious analysis of his side in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Alonso’s conviction that Spain are contenders to lift the world crown is unmistakable.
The Iberians were absent from the most recent global showdown at Ravenna 2011, but have participated in five tournament editions, achieving their best placing of fourth at Marseille 2008. Now, after winning the European qualifying competition for Tahiti 2013, their sights are set on one thing only in French Polynesia. “We have to work hard to achieve our aims,” Alonso said. “The objective is to win the World Cup and we’re capable of competing with the best teams out there.”
Alonso’s charges finished fourth at the Euro Beach Soccer League 2013, beating Italy 5-3 and the Netherlands 5-2, before succumbing to the reigning world champions Russia 4-2 and losing 4-1 to Switzerland in the match for third place. Despite the defeats, the coach is satisfied with the bigger picture. “We’re happy with our progress," Alonso said. "Looking back at the most recent tournaments, from the Mundialito in Porto, the tournament in Russia and in the Super Final in Torredembarra, we’re growing as a team.”
Spain’s superb opening victory over the Squadra Azzurra was followed by a win against fellow FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup participants the Netherlands, paving the way for the semi-final meeting with Russia. “We started well and went in front, but we had a poor spell where they scored three goals in quick succession,” recalled Alonso, a midfielder in his 1970s and 80s heyday. “However, even then the team reacted superbly and we had chances to reach the final right up until the last minute. That gives us optimism to think that if we can hone some things ahead of Tahiti, we’ll be able to compete on an equal footing with any team.”
Another factor which Alonso believes gives Spain an edge is the mixture of ages within the squad: “The arrival and integration of enthusiastic young players alongside the veterans is a great combination and it bodes well for our future.”
Yet it is the past which is helping shape Alonso’s vision for Tahiti 2013. Italy beat Spain to a place in the 2008 final with a penalty shootout victory, while Uruguay knocked them out in the quarter-finals a year later with a goal in additional time. “We need to be very careful and respect all our opponents,” the Asturian said, eyeing his country’s Group A fixtures against Tahiti, United Arab Emirates and USA.
“The group is deceptive,” Alonso said. “I’m happy with the draw we got but we need to show what we can do right from the start to try and reach the next stage. It’s the small details that are the difference between winning and losing.”
Of the Group A quartet, the hosts were the only participants at the last FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup. United Arab Emirates, like Spain, are returning to the competition following their 2011 hiatus, while USA’s last appearance came in 2007.
“USA are strong,” Alonso said of his side’s first opponents. “They have a mixture of youngsters like Nick Perera and more experienced players, and they’re the CONCACAF champions.” Spain will subsequently face United Arab Emirates, a team Alonso will not be underestimating given their regular appearances on the global stage: “Their coach Marcelo Mendes has been working in Dubai for seven years with his side and they’ll be very difficult to beat.”
Spain round off their group fixtures against hosts Tahiti, who fell at the first hurdle at Ravenna 2011. “They’re the unknown quantity,” Alonso warned. “Their Swiss coach Angelo Schirinzi has helped them a lot. He has great knowledge of the game and is one of the best coaches around at the moment. They’ve had some good results and when you combine that with them hosting the tournament, it makes them a dangerous team.”
Pushing caution to one side temporarily, Alonso’s confidence in his troops’ ability comes to the fore. “We’re a compact, homogenous team who always give our all and get involved,” said the former Sporting Gijon icon. “Our training camp prior to leaving will give us an advantage going into the tournament.” La Roja’s squad will meet up to begin their preparations two weeks before heading to Tahiti on 15 September.
Yet as Alonso’s conversation with FIFA.com draws to a close, his caution returns: “We can’t underestimate anyone and we need to keep our feet on the ground. The teams that have qualified for Tahiti 2013 aren’t there by chance."