With a coastline that stretches for more than 1,300km and a population that includes more than 400,000 footballers according to the last FIFA count, Sri Lanka certainly has huge potential when it comes to beach soccer.

Until recently, however, the football authorities on this island nation were focusing their efforts almost entirely on the well-established grass version of the game. Beach soccer was just something for the weekend, a casual kickabout that people could enjoy as an alternative to sunbathing or swimming.

Of course, beach soccer thrives on this fun, laid-back image and will continue to be played on the world’s beachfronts in exactly this kind of informal manner. But there is also much more to the sport than that. To take their game to the next level, players need an understanding of the Laws of the Game. They need referees who can apply those rules, coaches who can work on their skills and tactics, and national or regional structures to make sure these elements are available.

Considering that for most participants beach soccer was totally new, I was impressed by how quickly they got familiar with the Beach Soccer Laws of the Game and improved their level of refereeing during the festival.

FIFA beach soccer refereeing instructor Stephan Fassler

Though the game is still in its infancy as an internationally organised sport, Beach Soccer World Cups have been held regularly since 1995, coming under the FIFA umbrella with the staging of the first official FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in Rio de Janeiro in 2005. As a result, FIFA member associations with currently untapped beach soccer resources are starting to wake up to the fact that the sport may offer them a shot at international glory – a prospect that is particularly appealing in countries where qualification for the main FIFA World Cup™ is little more than a distant dream.

With this in mind, FIFA’s Education and Technical Development Department invited football representatives from 11 Central Asian countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) to Sri Lanka in August to participate in a week-long regional seminar which combined both the theory and practice of beach soccer.

FIFA, in association with the Football Federation of Sri Lanka (FFSL), and with the help of AFC representative Gabriel Joseph, prepared two courses, one for local coaches and another for local referees, and a seminar for technical and administrative personnel, while the FFSL was in charge of staging a beach soccer festival at the end of the week.

FIFA often uses existing competitions or seminars to also tag on courses for coaches, referees or administrators, but the Sri Lanka week marked a departure from this approach with the entire programme this time being organised from scratch. The resulting combination of classroom work and practical organisation out on the sand led to a highly fruitful exchange of ideas – particularly for associations with little previous experience of beach soccer.

Enormous help
“The information and knowledge shared with the experts was very useful and will help us enormously in our endeavours to raise awareness of this young and dynamic sport in Central as well as South Asian countries,” Alisher Faysiev, head of the Uzbekistan Football Federation Development Department, told FIFA. For some of the attendees it was even a novelty to imagine that beach soccer can be played in countries that lack beaches.

“Before coming to this seminar, we thought that beach soccer was called beach soccer for a reason – that it could only be played on the beach,” said Mindu Dorji, Technical Director of the football federation in landlocked Bhutan. “Now, we have seen the many opportunities that beach soccer can provide, even to inland countries.”

The Sri Lanka seminar also threw out some pleasant surprises for the participating experts from FIFA and FIFA’s beach soccer partners, Beach Soccer Worldwide, all of whom commented favourably on the speed at which the Central Asian representatives had taken to the intricacies of the sport.

“Considering that for most participants beach soccer was totally new, I was impressed by how quickly they got familiar with the Beach Soccer Laws of the Game and improved their level of refereeing during the festival,” said FIFA beach soccer refereeing instructor Stephan Fässler. “The seminar was very valuable in raising awareness of our sport,” added Beach Soccer Worldwide’s Head of Competitions Josep Ponset after passing on some of his experience in the successful organisation of beach soccer events. “I am convinced that all the participants have now been provided with the tools they need to further develop beach soccer in their countries.”

Those tools were put to the test at the beach soccer festival which brought the week’s lessons to a successful conclusion. Twelve local men’s and women’s teams participated in the event, with coaches drawn from the coaching course and referees from the refereeing course. “The idea of following up the coaching course with a festival was excellent as it gave participants the chance to immediately apply the knowledge they had gained during the course,” said experienced Brazilian beach soccer coach and FIFA instructor Marcelo Mendes.

In the end, it was a successful event that should also now serve as the starting point for the development of beach soccer across Central Asia and, in particular, on the island that played such a warm host to the seminar participants. “The potential of beach soccer in Sri Lanka is immense,” insisted FFSL Deputy General Secretary Anura Calixtus De Silva as the delegates bade their farewells. “With the lessons we have taken from this event, we are now looking forward to promoting the game all over the island!”