Think of American beaches and images of California sun, rolling waves and bronzed surfers are immediately evoked. Many of the USA squad at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Tahiti 2013 are based in California, or at least in the vicinity of the west coast, but Ryan Futagaki defies the norm. The short but powerfully built Futagaki, though originally from California, now hails, in a rather unlikely twist, from the landlocked state of Ohio in the heart of America’s mid-west.
Futagaki is forced to resort to training on a beach volleyball court by himself as customers at the court-side bar look on, no doubt scratching their heads at his curious unaccompanied workout. As is the case throughout the USA squad, beach soccer is a pastime and Futagaki spends his working days selling medical devices for a surgical company. In a team which also includes students, and a variety of workers including a plumber, it is little wonder that coach Eddie Soto compares his charges to USA’s mostly amateur side that made a breakthrough appearance at the 1990 FIFA World Cup™.
Long wait for global return
For Futagaki a 14-year absence from the world stage will end on Wednesday when USA step onto French Polynesia’s golden sands in the To’ata stadium in downtown Papeete. It is in every sense a world away from Bauchi in Nigeria where Futagaki represented USA at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Nigeria 1999, alongside future luminaries such as Tim Howard and Carlos Bocanegra.
His career peaked at MLS club Chicago Fire, before Futagaki’s long odyssey to Papeete began five years ago. “In 2008 Eddie called me saying to give beach soccer a try,” said Futagaki taking up his story with FIFA.com. “To be honest going from top level soccer, it was a very humbling experience. You go out there on the sand and suddenly you feel like you have 20 pounds on each leg. It was challenging but I love it, and with my work ethic, heart and technical ability, it was a good fit.”
USA are returning to the tournament after a six-year absence meaning most of the squad are debuting at this level, Futagaki among them, although he has competed in the past two unsuccessful qualification campaigns. “We qualified as CONCACAF champions [earlier this year], so we couldn’t do any better than that. We have a good group of guys and coaching staff, our team has come together really well and gelled. Everything about the team is in tune. When you’re on the same page together and trust each other, everything comes together and you can win championships."
Hunger to grow the game
Success in French Polynesia would provide a defining moment for USA’s beach soccer fraternity, who yearn for a return to the 1990s when the Stars & Stripes were one of the world leaders in the discipline. Firstly though, they will have to overcome a tough looking Group A featuring Spain, United Arab Emirates and host nation Tahiti. “Beach Soccer is growing in the States with the support of the Federation,” says the 33-year-old Futagaki who boasts Japanese lineage.
Coach Soto, himself a former national team representative on sand and now coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy Academy team, says his players have sacrificed much to live their FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup ambitions. And the coach is driving his players by also providing them with both individual and team goals.
The need to grasp this rare opportunity is not lost on the experienced Futagaki. “Any World Cup is to me is special, a special thing that you don't want miss because you don't know when you might get back,” he said. “There can be injuries, complications, anything could happen so just enjoy the moment.”