That FIFA runs huge development programmes world-wide is well-known and Madagascar's participation at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Portugal 2015 is a testament to how much can be achieved in a relatively short space of time with focused work and funds. "Everything began in 2009, with a FIFA training course during the national championship in the town of Toamasina, on the east coast of the island. Some FIFA instructors, including Claude Barrabe, came to Madagascar to teach coaches and referees,” explains assistant national team coach Solofo Tsihavanana.
The investment paid dividends just two years later, as the island state participated in their first African Beach Championship in Morocco in 2011. The rookies were quick out of the block as they lost to Nigeria, but beat South Africa in the group phase to qualify for the semi-finals. Although they lost in the round of the last four to Nigeria and then were beaten in a penalty shoot-out by Egypt in the play-off match, the Barea had arrived on the continental stage. Two years later, Madagascar again participated in the African championship, but this time they failed to escape the group phase.
“After the initial training course in 2009, we were invited to participate in a tournament on the island of La Reunion, with other nations like Spain and France. Since then, the Malagasy national team kept on growing step by step. There have also been two other FIFA training courses after 2009," Tsihavanana recalls.
After failing to qualify for the global tournament in 2011 and 2013, Madagascar were eager to do better this year, when Africa's leading nations gathered in the Seychelles. However, as the sport has been growing on the continent, teams had to qualify for the finals. Ahead of the qualification campaign Malagasy football officials decided they wanted a new coach and turned to the neighbouring island of Reunion, where the FIFA instructor Barrabe was living. They convinced him to become their national team coach at the qualifying tournament to the Seychelles. In qualifying, the Barea were drawn against South Africa, who were considered as one of the teams that could challenge for a place in Portugal, but even though both games were played in South Africa, Madagascar proved too strong, winning 5-1 and 4-2.
One step at a time
To prepare for the finals, the team participated in the COSAFA Beach Soccer Cup, which was played in a newly constructed stadium in Roche Caiman in the Seychelles – the very same stadium that was to host the African championship just a few days later. Madagascar won the inaugural cup, beating Malawi in the final. Their triumph was a sign of things to come as they topped their group in the African Championship after victories against Senegal, Ghana and Morocco. In the semi-finals, they needed a penalty shoot-out to overcome Côte d’Ivoire to qualify for the final against defending champions Senegal.
Although they had already achieved their major goal, that of qualifying for Portugal, by making it to the final, the emerging side wanted more, and again they prevailed in a penalty shoot-out, beating Senegal for their first-ever continental title. "This is an excellent example of how FIFA's Beach Soccer development programmes have assisted Madagascar who will be participating in their very first FIFA World Cup final after being crown champions of Africa,” said the FIFA Beach Soccer and Futsal Coordinator, Brent Rahim.
The side's veteran captain Tianasoa Rabeasimbola says he knows what made the difference between their previous African campaigns and the one in the Seychelles. "I have played for the national team since the beginning. We grew step by step and always believed in ourselves, even if it was difficult to bounce back after failing at times. With Claude Barrabe, everything changed in 2015. He is a great manager, with very good tactics. He has built up an excellent relationship with every member of the team. "
Barrabe, who has been described as the missing piece of the Madagascan Beach Soccer puzzle, is reluctant to take all the credit. "My contribution is at the tactical level and I also share my experience. I came many times in Madagascar to help the nation develop beach soccer, so I knew the actors of beach soccer there. The President of the Malagasy Federation, Ahmad, has been a friend of mine for many years. He called me some months ago and asked me if I want to manage the Malagasy national team. I accepted the challenge. We worked very hard for many months and you can now see the results of our efforts.”
For Rahim, the success the team has enjoyed can rub off on others, and that process was on display in Seychelles at the FIFA/CAF Beach Soccer Workshop, which was a collaboration between FIFA, CAF, the Seychelles Football Federation and Beach Soccer Worldwide. The meetings were designed to improve the understanding of team coaches and officials, as well as address administrative and management improvement on the continent. “We are convinced that the success of Madagascar will prove to be inspirational for other Member Associations with similar aspirations that with a strategic approach and the support of FIFA great things are possible.”
Just how far the fairytale ride will continue will be seen in Portugal, where the Barea have been drawn to take on Russia, Paraguay and Tahiti in Group D.