Five years ago El Salvador surprised people both near and far by qualifying for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Marseille 2008, a feat that was all the more impressive because it was achieved by a side made up almost entirely of fishermen who played the game for fun.
Current team captain Agustin Ruiz was a member of that side, though his story is slightly different to that of his team-mates. While he makes a living from fishing on the island of La Pirraya, like several of his colleagues, he is unique in that he came close to playing first-division football in his country.
“I trained with top-flight side Club Deportivo FAS but I got injured and couldn’t go back,” the quietly spoken Ruiz told FIFA.com, without going into details. “Then beach soccer came along. I went for a trial and Rudis [Gonzalez, El Salvador’s national team coach] selected me. And here I am, playing in my fourth world finals.”
The fact is that, like many youngsters on his home island, the 25-year-old pivot has actually been playing the game since he was ten, though the need to make a living fishing out at sea has prevented him from devoting more of his time to it.
“It’s still hard,” he explained. “We don’t have that much time to train and it’s not easy to fit it all in. When we do play though, we put our heart and souls into it.”
Dreams and expectations
After experiencing nothing but defeat at Marseille in 2008 and Dubai a year later, Los Cuscatlecos stunned everyone by reaching a wholly unexpected fourth place at Ravenna 2011. While Frank Velasquez took most of the limelight, winning the adidas Bronze Ball and adidas Bronze Scorer awards, Ruiz did his bit by chipping in with five goals, taking his overall tally in 13 world finals matches to ten.
That run two years ago partly explains the disappointment he feels at El Salvador’s 4-1 defeat to Argentina in their opening match at Tahiti 2013.
“Obviously I’m worried about the result, but I’m more concerned about our play because we’ve got four straight world finals under our belts and there are some errors we just shouldn’t be making,” said Ruiz. “We went out there feeling a little bit too confident and it cost us dear. We gave them space, they took their chances and then they ran the clock down. I expected more of us.”
Contemplating their next outing against the Netherlands, another side who lost their first match, the self-confessed Barcelona and Lionel Messi fan said: “There’s nothing about the Dutch that worries us in particular. We’ve played several European teams and we know how we measure up to them. The important thing is not to give anything away. We don’t have any margin for error.”
A devout Christian, Ruiz looked at the wider picture and spoke of the growing popularity the game now enjoys back home, a success story to which both he and his team-mates have contributed: “We have six million Salvadorans following what we do here,” he said, signing off. “For them and for us it would be a failure not to make the next round, because of the expectations we had in coming here. We still believe though.”