The wounds still feel fresh, but now Mexico have the perfect opportunity to put their demons to rest in the sand, in the very country that denied them a place at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Tahiti 2013.
El Tri will certainly not be lacking incentives heading into the 2015 CONCACAF Beach Soccer Championship, taking place in El Salvador from 28 March to 4 April. The time-honoured rivalry with the hosts is supplemented by the prospect of a grudge rematch against the side that blocked their path to Tahiti by beating them at the semi-final stage of this tournament's last edition, in the Bahamas. For this reason, there have been few hotter topics in the build-up to a competition in which two spots at Portugal 2015 will be decided.
"Going and winning somewhere where you're unpopular is more satisfying than winning at home, though I'd like to make it clear that so long as Mexico go through, I don't care who the other qualifier is," El Tri coach, Ramon Raya, told FIFA.com. "But of course I'm using it as motivation: I've told my players that if they succeed, they'll be able to say that they won a tournament in El Salvador when everything was stacked against them, which isn't something you experience every day. It's an opportunity they cannot pass up."
While there has long been a rivalry between the two countries in the sporting arena, layers of sand have been added to the mix in recent years. After they surprisingly reached the Beach Soccer World Cup final back in 2007, many observers believed that Mexico were set to assert themselves as the force to be reckoned with on sand in the CONCACAF region. However, no one was banking on El Salvador emerging like a bolt from the blue in 2008, since when they have overshadowed their foes to the north-west.
Indeed, not only did La Selecta finish fourth at Ravenna 2011, but they are the only CONCACAF representative to have made it to the last four World Cups. Raya's praise for the Salvadorans is not restricted to their results: "They have two stadiums, an established league and the whole country behind them. We may have beaten them more times than the other way round, but right now they set the standard."
Great excitement, but not expectations
Nobody should be surprised by Raya's keenness to look at the bigger picture. After all, the 46-year-old Mexican is also a certified FIFA Beach Soccer Instructor and was at Tahiti 2013 as part of the FIFA Technical Study Group. Hence the emphasis he places on the regional tournament's expansion to 16 teams – six more than two years ago – of which eight will be making their competition debut. These even include Guadeloupe who, as they are not a FIFA member, would not claim a World Cup berth if they reach the final: their ticket would instead pass on to the winners of the play-off for third place.
"I think it's great because CONCACAF is home to 31 Caribbean teams whose players are ideal for this form of the game, as they're used to cavorting in the sand and kicking a ball around barefoot. In beach soccer there's not such a large gulf between the big powers and the rest, and in some cases the latter have even developed better infrastructure. This means they can aspire to play in the World Cup, whereas in other varieties of the sport, that might be a pipe dream. The smaller associations have to understand that this is the way forward," argued Raya, who featured in the FIFA U-17 World Cup on grass back in 1985.
Despite acknowledging that his own side are among the favourites in El Salvador, together with the hosts, USA and Costa Rica, the Mexican is mindful that getting out of the group stage will be no mean feat, let alone lifting the trophy. The top two from each of the four competitive-looking four-team groups will go through to the quarter-finals, after which a knockout format takes over to crown the champions.
"Any side playing without pressure are a threat. For example, my team have to take on Trinidad and Tobago, who previously worked with the Brazilian Alexandre Soares – the most successful coach in beach soccer history – and are now led by another specialist in Ben Astorga. Something must have rubbed off on them! A single loss could make life difficult for us. Then, if logic prevails, maybe we'll face Panama, another side who have shown progress, in the quarter-finals – or Guatemala, whose development has yet to be reflected in the results."
On the subject of his own team, Raya highlighted that he has a young squad featuring only four survivors from the last tournament. Chief among them are goalkeeper Miguel Estrada and defender Francisco Cati, both of whom flew the green, white and red flag at the 2007 World Cup. But will this lack of experience hinder their chances? "I'm not the sort to drum up expectations; I prefer to instil a commitment to giving 100 per cent," stated the El Tri coach, preparing to bring our chat to a close. "We're a team who play with our hearts on our sleeves; that's been a hallmark since I've been at the helm. Time will tell how far that gets us. It also depends on our opponents and even on the condition of the sand."