Ahead of any world finals it is far from unusual to hear the reigning champions being tipped for glory again. That is certainly the case ahead of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Tahiti 2013, where Russia are aiming to retain the crown they won two years ago.
But when such an observation is made by someone of the stature of Brazil coach Junior Negao, it seems almost unreal. Yet, though he paused momentarily when asked to name his favourites for the competition, the Brazilian beach soccer legend was emphatic in his answer.
“It makes you think. Brazil were always the favourites, always. And now for the first time, they’re not,” the Seleção supremo told FIFA.com. “Russia are the team to beat. I don’t mind saying that, and our players are also aware they’re not the favourites here.”
It seems barely credible that any Brazilian beach soccer devotee would make such an admission. The beaches of Brazil are the cradle of the game after all, and the country underscored their global supremacy by winning the world title four times in a row between 2006 and 2009.
But when this acknowledgement of a power shift comes from someone who has graced the game since it began to take off in the 1990s, becoming one of its legendary figures before taking on the national team job at the end of 2012, it really does take a little while to sink in.
More than qualified
Hilton Santos Junior, to give him his full name, has played more beach soccer internationals for his country than anyone else – 318 – and took part in all ten world championships held prior to the inception of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in 2005, with Brazil winning all but one of them. He then captained the national side in the first four FIFA world finals, skippering the side to victory in 2006, 2007 and 2008, a treble that atoned for their disappointing third place in the inaugural competition.
With credentials such as those, the 49-year-old was an obvious candidate to take over as coach, especially having helped spread the gospel of the game around the world. The only thing is, in teaching others how to take on the Brazilians at their own game, he did not expect the lesson to be learned so quickly.
“It’s a funny thing,” he said, taking up the story. “In 2010 I gave a month-long coaching course in Russia and the question everyone was asking was how to beat Brazil. I told them that to do that you had to defend very well and make the most of the very few chances that Brazil would give you in their weak areas, namely in defending corners and set-pieces from the flanks.
“So the Russians went away and worked on that,” he continued. “They learned and developed their game, so much so that almost all of their goals come from dead-ball situations like that.”
It seems to hurt the coach to be talking about a team other than Brazil in such terms, and not because he is overly attached to his country’s golden past in the game. What he feels is more a sense of frustration that the side that dominated beach soccer not so long ago has started to tread water, allowing their rivals to catch up.
To illustrate the point he made an interesting analogy: “Look at the basketball the NBA players used to play when they started competing in international tournaments back in 1992: they beat everyone by 40 or 50 points. But these days they have to fight hard and sometimes they even lose. More or less the same thing has happened to Brazil in beach soccer. You have to face the facts. That process has taken place.”
Yet as far as Junior Negao is concerned, the time has come to take action. Having put his side through some intense preparations over the last month, he has every confidence in his blend of veterans such as Mao, Jorginho and Bueno and youngsters of the calibre of Bokinha and Datinha, not to mention the one area of the game where he believes Brazil are still the masters.
“Are we the favourites? No, we’re not. But there is no other team in the world that can match us in attack,” he said defiantly.“That’s still a fact and if we can harness that to our commitment and tactical discipline then we can take on anyone,” he continued, making it very clear to whom he was referring by “anyone”.
“Times have changed,” he added. “These days the big scalp is Russia and not Brazil. But I think we’ve got the weapons to take that scalp.”