When Uruguay lost to Portugal in the match for third place at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Dubai 2009, Ricardo Martinez’s first thought was that they would be back for revenge two years later in Ravenna.
At the time, no one – not his team-mates, rivals or the sport’s followers – would have thought otherwise, not with Uruguay having never missed the world finals since the inaugural competition in 2005 and finished runners-up and third the next two years. As it turned out, however, that defeat to the Portuguese remains La Celeste’s last World Cup match to date.
“That’s right. We would never have imagined that we’d miss out on the next few World Cups,” the 34-year-old wing, known on the beach soccer scene as 'Ricar', told FIFA.com. “The facts don’t lie, though, and they tell us that we just haven’t been able to do it,” added the only member of the 2005 squad still playing for Uruguay.
His country’s most capped player in the world finals with 25 appearances (a record he shares with the now-retired German Parrillo) and its leading scorer in World Cup matches with 27 goals, Ricar attempted to explain Uruguay’s continuing absence from the biggest stage of all. “For one thing, the sport’s becoming increasingly professional and demanding, and we in Uruguay haven’t adapted as quickly to that change,” he said.
“It’s also true, though, that our performance has been a big factor, both on a collective and individual level. That’s something which weighs heavy on us, obviously. We’ve learned to change our mindset, though, because if you don’t, then the whole issue of not qualifying for the World Cup can become an obsession. The thing is, it comes back as soon as the qualifiers come into view – like now, for example,” added Ricar, who, when he is not playing beach soccer, works as an electrician for the AEBU, a Uruguayan banking association, in his hometown of Canelones.
Destination: Bahamas 2017
The South American qualifiers will take place in Paraguay on 5 to 12 February, with three places at Bahamas 2017 up for grabs. In the group phase of the competition, Uruguay will take on the hosts, Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, with the top two in that section and the other group going forward to the semi-finals. The two finalists and the third-placed team will qualify for the Beach Soccer World Cup.
Looking ahead to the competition, Ricar said: “The qualifiers are a lot more competitive now, a lot more difficult. To start with, Brazil are definitely going to take one of the places. That’s something that doesn’t change, and luckily for us, we’re not in the same group. I can’t see them not making it because they’re so far ahead of everyone else. You can beat them, but only once in a thousand times. So what you’re fighting for is two places, not three.
“Then there’s the fact that the rest have come on an awful lot: Paraguay, Chile, Ecuador, and Venezuela, etc. With all due respect, before you always knew there were ‘winnable’ games, but now they’re all a battle. Even Argentina, who’ve always qualified, are finding it harder and harder. Nobody goes under-prepared now.”
Ricar can vouch for that following his experience at the qualifiers two years ago in Ecuador, when victory in the final group match against Peru would have given Uruguay a place in the last four. Yet, a shock defeat, coupled with an unexpected Argentina win over Brazil, spelled the end of their World Cup ambitions.
“If you’d said to us before the tournament that if we beat Peru, we’d be in the semis, we would have taken that,” he said. “But we made some unforgivable mistakes, which, against most sides, you never used to pay for so dearly. These days, though, they nearly always end up in the back of your net.”
Confident that things will be different this time, Ricar added: “We’ve worked a lot on going back to our old brand of beach soccer, the style in which the team that finished World Cup runners-up in 2006 played. Today, our game’s all about defending. It’s not all ‘jogo bonito’ now. That’s the reason why Brazil lost in the last couple of World Cups.”
Uruguay finished fourth in the last Copa America, held in December, behind Brazil, Paraguay and Venezuela. “Though we all took young players so they could gain experience, it is a yardstick and it shows that we can fight,” warned Ricar, who began his beach soccer career at the end of 2004 when the goalkeeper Diego Monserrat, another legendary retiree, invited him to have a trial with the national team.
With the qualifiers just around the corner, now is not the time to ponder the retirement of the last member of Uruguay’s old guard – regardless of whether he can cap his career with a trip to the Bahamas – not least because he has finally overcome a herniated disc that dogged him for most of last year. “I live and breathe beach soccer and I can’t imagine taking another sideways step. All I’m thinking about right now are the qualifiers: we can’t miss another World Cup.”