'Surprising' may seem a strange word to use to describe a tournament where the two major players achieve their minimum objectives, but, in the case of the fifth edition of CONMEBOL qualifying for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, it is a description that feels perfectly fitting.
Indeed, this was a preliminary competition in which Argentina were crowned regional champions for the first time, Brazil suffered their maiden defeat in the section, and Paraguay booked their ticket to Tahiti 2013 for their first ever appearance at a world finals.
Argentina and Brazil also now join Japan as the only teams to have qualified for the finals of every FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup to date. FIFA.com now takes a look back at an eventful qualifying campaign, which unfolded in the city of Merlo in the Argentinian province of San Luis.
Argentina had the advantage of home support and started among the tournament favourites. But to win the title they would, at some point, have to beat four-time world champions Brazil, a feat they had not managed in previous qualifying campaigns. La Albiceleste started the group stage defensively, scraping two narrow wins and almost losing to Chile before snatching victory on penalties. They finally found the scoring touch in their last game against Colombia, safe in the knowledge that no result could deny them top spot in Group A, and that they would not have to play Brazil in the semi-finals.
Instead they faced Ecuador, albeit with the pressure still very much on. Argentina knew that defeat would send them into a third-place play-off for the last remaining spot at Tahiti 2013. And they knew their opponents would be Brazil, who had suffered a shock defeat against Paraguay in the first semi-final earlier in the day. But Hector Petrasso's men held their nerve and made their superiority count with a 5-3 victory. With the shackles off, they then gave a demonstration of their quality with a resounding 6-2 win over Paraguay in the final. To cap it off, Luciano Franceschini was named as the qualifying competition's most valuable player, and Marcelo Salgueiro as the best goalkeeper.
Despite finishing runners-up, Paraguay will take great pride from what turned out to be a historic campaign. La Albirroja grew in stature as the tournament progressed, pipping Chile to the semi-finals on goal difference after beating them 9-6 in their final group match. Their opponents in the last four were Brazil, to whom they had suffered extra-time defeats in two recent encounters. But this time they came out on top, winning 1-0 on penalties after a 6-6 draw. And with the victory, they condemned the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2011 runners-up to their first defeat in 31 regional qualifying games.
The mentally drained Paraguayans could not match Argentina in the final, but by that stage their mission of reaching Tahiti 2013 was already complete. Their successful qualifying campaign confirmed the promise shown in late 2012 when they took the beach soccer gold medal at the Bolivarian Beach games – a run that included victory over El Salvador, who came fourth at Ravenna/Italy 2011.
Brazil were largely untroubled on their way to winning their group, but did have to work hard for their 6-4 opening victory over Ecuador. Ultimately, though, their three wins and 24 goals counted for nothing in the semi-finals, where they fell to an inspired Paraguay in a memorable encounter. That defeat left A Canarinho to face Ecuador once more in the match for third place, but this time with the added risk of missing out on a FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup for the first time. And it looked a real possibility with the score at 5-4 going into the final period, but Brazil eventually powered to an 11-5 victory to avert what would have been an upset of the highest order.
"We have a very strong group, and we proved it by recovering from the very heavy blow we suffered against Paraguay," said Bruno Xavier after Brazil booked their place at Tahiti 2013. "We worked for a month and a half to get to the World Cup, we achieved our objective and we're going to celebrate it. We deserve to wear this shirt," The striker missed his side's decisive penalty against Paraguay in the semi-finals, but hit five goals in the match for third place and finished as the tournament's top scorer with 13.
The other pretenders
As they did in the 2009 preliminaries, Ecuador caused problems for the big boys with their balanced, organised style of play. But, once again, they narrowly missed out on a finals berth, a failure that will no doubt hurt even more now than it did four years ago. Their future, however, looks bright, as does that of Chile, who came within seconds of beating Argentina and only missed out on the semi-finals due to their inferior goal difference to Paraguay. Their fifth-place finish, then, can only be seen as a positive achievement.
The qualifying tournament proved another bitter experience for Uruguay, who finished sixth to miss out on a finals spot for the second time in their history. They will be hurting almost as much as Venezuela, who ended up bottom of the pile in ninth and with no points – a significant step backwards from their finals appearance at Ravenna/Italy 2011.
Colombia and Peru, meanwhile, finished seventh and eighth respectively and put in some respectable displays along the way, adding to their experience and gaining confidence to aim higher in the future.
1 Argentina *
2 Paraguay *
3 Brazil *
* Qualified for Tahiti 2013
Most Valuable Player
Luciano Franceschini (Argentina)
Best Goalkeeper Award
Marcelo Salgueiro (Argentina)
Fair Play Award
Bruno Xavier (Brazil) 13 goals
Benjamin (Brazil) 8
Castro (Peru) 7
Carrasco (Chile) 6
Medero (Argentina) 5
Valenzuela (Chile) 5
Moshamer (Colombia) 5
Rojas (Colombia) 5
Lopez (Paraguay) 5
Matias (Uruguay) 5