On 27 April, when the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Bahamas 2017 kicks off, 16 teams will be dreaming of glory on the sand in Nassau. For one of those, the dream will become a reality when the champions are eventually crowned on 7 May.
The first hurdles the teams will face was revealed on 28 February at the Official Draw, held at the Atlantis Paradise Island Hotel in the country's capital Nassau. The ceremony was attended by a number of coaches and representatives, who took some time out to talk to FIFA.com about the fates their respective teams have been handed in the group stage.
Group A: Familiar faces and first-timers
Bahamas, Switzerland, Ecuador, Senegal
The hosts have taken their preparations for their first-ever FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup campaign extremely seriously, even jetting off to Europe for a sizeable sojourn as part of their efforts to hone their game. Ironically, this included a spell at a training camp in none other than Switzerland, whom they face in their opening match, meaning that the Swiss know just what the islanders are capable of on the sand.
"We know the Bahamas very well; we're great friends. They spent two months with us and we played against one another a fair bit. It'll be a huge honour to face them in such a spectacular stadium, in front of their incredible fans," said Switzerland coach Angelo Schirinzi.
"We're also up against newcomers in Ecuador – I saw all of their games in qualifying and they surprised me; and Senegal, a really strong side very much in the African mould. Anything is possible and anything could happen. The group is wide open," he added, well aware that his charges cannot afford to underestimate the challenge posed by any of their opponents.
Group B: Hunger for redemption and an X factor
Nigeria, Italy, AFC 1, Mexico
With the identity of the Asian champions still unknown, it is difficult to draw too many conclusions at this point. As a result, the three other participants will have a keen eye on events at the upcoming AFC Beach Soccer Championship: only when that competition concludes on 11 March will they have a clear picture of what awaits them. Italy are the highest-profile and most pedigreed of the three, but Nigeria will be raring to make their mark on their return after a six-year absence from the tournament, and Mexico promise to be no pushover. Indeed, El Tri will be targeting atonement for their defeat by Panama in the final of the CONCACAF preliminary tournament and will be seeking to show that they have learned their lessons.
This was the verdict of Jose Aldrete, an assistant to Mexico coach Ramon Raya: "We've got to fight from beginning to end. Luck wasn't on our side in the final – we hit the post four times and even scored an own goal – but these things happen and we've got to work on being able to handle and overcome such situations."
Group C: Spotlight on the champions
AFC 2, Paraguay, Portugal, Panama
Portugal are going to have to be on their toes from the very first minute if they are to retain their title. Paraguay proved themselves to be a force to be reckoned with in the South American preliminaries, even holding their own against Brazil. Panama, meanwhile, made history by claiming the CONCACAF crown and qualifying for the Beach Soccer World Cup for the first time. If they can replicate the form they displayed en route to that victory, they will give all comers a stern test.
"Like I always say, it doesn't hurt to dream. We're just happy and pleasantly surprised to have qualified. Now we'll be up against global giants, not just the regional ones, and we're going to be physically and mentally prepared to do the country proud. We promise to show heart and character in every match," said Gabriel Estrada, the coordinator of the Panamanian national beach soccer team, stressing that Los Canaleros will be a tough nut to crack.
Group D: Heavyweight bouts in store
Brazil, Tahiti, AFC 3, Poland
The last section is headed by sleeping giants Brazil. A Seleção won four straight editions of the competition from 2006 to 2009, but have since had to watch other countries catch them up and lift the trophy. One of the most eagerly anticipated and entertaining encounters on Matchday 1 will be the Brazilians' meeting with Tahiti, the runners-up at Portugal 2015. Poland, for their part, will fancy themselves as dark horses. After causing a sensation by triumphing in the European qualifying tournament, they will be intent on continuing in the same vein on the world stage.
"It's a really tough group. Funnily enough, almost all of the teams faced one another just last November in the Intercontinental Cup. We lost 5-4 to Tahiti and 5-2 to Brazil, but both games were tight, so we've got high hopes. Perhaps the time is ripe for us to spring a surprise because we keep improving day in, day out," said Lukasz Sojski, of the Polish Football Association (PZPN).
The clock is ticking and the start of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Bahamas 2017 is drawing ever closer. Who will make it through the first round?