The last time Jean Soro appeared on a global footballing stage was in 1983, when he was a member of the Côte d'Ivoire squad at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Mexico. He played in all three matches for the west African country - drawing with Uruguay, but losing to USA and Poland and failing to get beyond the group stage. Fast forward 30 years and the 49-year-old has an opportunity to put that disappointment behind him when he leads a Côte d'Ivoire team that will be making their second appearance at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup.
However, the African team will face some stiff opposition in Tahiti during the 18-28 September tournament after being drawn into Group D together with Japan, who have been omnipresent at beach soccer finals, Paraguay, who finished runners-up in the CONMEBOL qualifying tournament, and defending champions Russia.
Soro admitted that the team are wary of the Russian side in the opening stage. "I think we are in a group in which we have a chance. We have every chance against Paraguay. In our group, the only team we are nervous about is Russia. The Russians have a very good side and we are working on how to counter them. This is a group that will not be easy, but making it to second round is possible for us."
The former Côte d'Ivoire international Soro qualified for Tahiti with his side by finishing runners-up at the African qualifiers in Morocco earlier this year. After winning all three group matches, Soro's team defeated hosts Morocco in the semi-finals to book their ticket to Tahiti. Although Senegal were too strong in the final - winning 4-1 - the Ivorians achieved their goal of being one of the two teams to represent the continent.
Soro, who played for major Ivorian clubs Stella, ASEC and Africa Sports and for the Elephants in the run-up to the 1992 Africa Nations Cup before being dropped from the final squad, said that the beach soccer team's goal in Tahiti would be to do better than in Dubai in 2009, which was their only other appearance in the finals. "We are hoping we can reach the second round, which we could not do four years ago. If we make it to the second round, any positive result thereafter will be a bonus."
As a rising side on the continent and looking to prove they belong on the highest stage, Soro insists his team will be highly motivated. "Along with Senegal, we are the only two representatives of Africa at the World Cup, so we will do our best to represent our continent honourably. We are certainly not going to Tahiti to make up the numbers. We are going there to disturb a certain hierarchy."
Training camps at home
The preparations for the team have not gone as smoothly as the coach would have liked with planned friendly matches against Senegal and in Spain called-off due to administrative problems. Instead, the squad was taken through their paces during internal training camps.
During these preparations, Soro, who worked as a teacher before becoming a football coach, whittled the original squad of 25 down to 15 - still three more than will be on the final list. The team will complete its preparations during a week-long training camp in Grand Bassam, which ends on 10 September. Three days later the team will to Tahiti via Dubai, Australia and New Zealand: a journey that will take them almost two entire days. Soro said that the players selected for the squad played their football in the local Beach Soccer competition. "After this last camp in Bassam, we will choose the final 12."
During the training camps, the technical staff spent some time ensuring that the physical condition of the players will be ready to play three group games in five days. The attacking players, led by Moustapha Sakanoko, were also given specialised training. Sakanoko, who was the second top-scorer in Morocco with nine goals, will be appearing at his first FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup.
The side will, however, have plenty of experience, with captain and goalkeeper Boris Enam, forward Ludovic Ehounou and wingers Didier Kabletchi and Frederic Aka amongst the players who are expected to make their second appearance at the showpiece event of Beach Soccer. Ehounou scored eight of the 15 goals Côte d'Ivoire scored in 2009 in Dubai, including an astonishing five in the side's 7-6 victory against El Salvador.