Tuesday’s draw for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Portugal 2015 marked the start of the countdown to the big event, to be held on the Praia da Baia in Espinho on 9-19 July.
The 16 qualifiers now know the size of the task awaiting them in the group phase, with the big names starting to map their way to the knockout phase and the tournament’s outsiders eyeing stellar campaigns of their own.
FIFA.com caught up with some of the coaches and captains of the 16 sides that will be doing battle on the sands of northern Portugal this summer and sought their views on what lies in store for them in the group phase.
Group A: Portugal, Japan, Argentina and Senegal
Hosts Portugal are planning to host a memorable tournament, but are aiming for more, much more, than a party atmosphere in the stands. As team coach Mario Narciso explained, the Portuguese want nothing less than the world title, a goal he believes is within their grasp, even if he knows they will have to fight for it.
“The night before the draw I tried to picture how it might work out for us,” he said. “And the fact is, I had a real job picking teams who, on paper, we should be able to beat. You’d expect that, though. The top 16 teams in the world are going to be there.”
Respectful though the Portuguese are, that does not mean to they will be lacking in ambition when the ball starts rolling.
“We try to win every competition we play in,” added Narciso. “There are four or five teams who can win the title and we’re one of them.
Asked if he can imagine lifting the trophy, he said with a smile: “I’ve dreamed about it more than 20 times. I have imagined it and if we’re going to do it, we’ll need the help of our fans, who are going to pack the stadium out for sure.”
Facing the hosts are Japan and Argentina, two of the three teams who have never missed a FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, Brazil being the other. The Japanese will head into the tournament in the unaccustomed position of not being Asian champions, though their Brazilian coach Marcelo Mendes believes they can cause the Portuguese problems in the opening game in Group A.
“It looks like an evenly matched group to me, but we’re aiming for the quarter-finals,” said Mendes. “The pressure on Portugal in the first match will be huge and we’ll be looking to make the most of that. Obviously they’re a very strong side and they’ve got fantastic players like Madjer and Alan. I can name their whole team, in fact. Nothing’s impossible for Japan, though.”
Group B: Switzerland, Oman, Italy and Costa Rica
Oman are the side who took the Asian title from the Japanese. Coached by Thalib Hilal, the Middle Easterners head into their second world finals intent on improving on their performance in the first, when they were eliminated in the group phase at Italy 2011.
“We’re coming here as Asian champions and that will earn us respect,” said Hilal after the draw was made. “Obviously there’ll be more expectation on us too, in what is a very interesting group with two good European sides, the Asian champions, and Costa Rica, the CONCACAF runners-up.
“I think we all have the same chance of reaching the last eight, though the Swiss are probably favourites. Even so, you can’t predict what’s going to happen on the pitch.”
He added: “If we can reach the second phase, it would be a fantastic achievement. You have to remember that Oman only started playing beach soccer in 2008.”
Group C: Brazil, Mexico, Spain and Iran
No sooner had the draw been made than this section was being dubbed “the group of death”. With former world champions Brazil and World Cup regulars Spain and Iran for opposition, Mexico coach Ramon Raya could have been forgiven for cursing his luck afterwards. As it turned out, however, the Tri boss was in buoyant mood.
“It was a great draw,” said a beaming Raya. “It’s an honour to be back at the World Cup and to be featuring in yet another ‘group of death’. If I could have chosen, I’d have gone for any other group than this, but the fact is I’m used to it.”
Contemplating their showdown with the Brazilians, he added: “It’s going to be my fourth beach soccer world finals and I’ve faced Brazil in the group phase every time. It was destined to be, wasn’t it?
“I could stand here and curse my luck, but they’re great battles that make great warriors out of players. And the fact that people will be writing us off only makes us stronger and gives us even more motivation for the World Cup.”
Group D: Russia, Paraguay, Tahiti and Madagascar
The last of the four groups has an altogether more eclectic feel to it, with two-time reigning world champions Russia being pitched against Paraguay, 2013 Beach Soccer World Cup hosts Tahiti and this year’s surprise newcomers, Madagascar.
The Africans made history in qualifying for a FIFA competition for the first time ever, and it was no surprise to see their coach Andrianirina Ramarolahy looking happy just be at the draw.
“I’m absolutely delighted to be here in Portugal and I’m incredibly proud to be part of this World Cup. I really am very happy,” he said after learning of his side’s fate.
As he went on to say, Madagascar have no intention of just making up the numbers: “We’re going to do our very best to reach the second round. I think we can do it too. Russia are just another team at the end of the day, They’re the champions and we respect that, but it’s a game for us to go out and win.”
No less delighted to be there was Tahiti captain Naea Bennett. After taking the beach soccer world by storm two years ago in finishing fourth on home sand, the Pacific islanders are no longer an unknown quantity.
“There’s no question that Russia are the team to beat, but the rest of the group is wide open and Tahiti have got every chance of making the quarter-finals,” said Bennett, who added that he and his team-mates will be doing all they can to get the Portuguese fans behind them.
“We’re going to bring a little bit of our sunshine with us and some typical Tahitian joy,” he promised. “If FIFA lets us, we’ll also do the Haka before every game, like we did in 2013.”
Traditional war dances or not, Portugal 2015 already has the makings of a hugely successful tournament.