Enter the name ‘Noel Ott’ into an Internet search engine, and before long you will also see the name of one of the best footballers of all time – Lionel Messi. The reason for this is simple: the in-demand Swiss player is widely regarded as beach soccer’s answer to the Argentinian superstar.
"Many people compare me to him," Ott proudly confirmed to FIFA.com, "because I spin past opponents like a whirlwind. Fans began making the comparison when I was playing beach soccer for Barcelona in 2014 and 2015. We’re both quite small, score lots of goals and are technically strong. I also wear the No10 shirt for the national team. Having said all that, I don’t see myself as being on the same level as him at all. Messi is one of the best, if not the best footballer of all time. To be compared with someone like that is a huge honour."
In exactly 50 days time, this exceptionally talented player will be seeking to lay the foundations for his first international title. Die Nati kick off their FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2017 campaign in the Bahamas on 27 April by facing the hosts in Group A before taking on competition debutants Ecuador and African champions Senegal. For Ott, reaching the knockout stages is a must. "My mentality means I always want to win, and if I go to a tournament, I want to finish in top spot. While we’re primarily just pleased to be involved, anything is possible from the quarter-finals onwards, as so much depends on your form on the day in beach soccer." With three FIFA Club World Cup titles and a FIFA U-20 World Cup success to his name, Messi already has a head start in this respect.
Ott sampled his first taste of a World Cup as a 21-year-old in Portugal in 2015. He finished the tournament with the adidas Bronze Boot as the third-highest goalscorer despite the fact that Switzerland, fresh from finishing runners-up at the 2014 Euro Beach Soccer Cup, flew home early after losing 7-3 to the hosts in the last eight. The Swiss striker scored in all four of his team’s matches. "Although we often travel to major competitions with the national team, anything involving FIFA is always more significant. The World Cup is the best and coolest tournament you can play at," he said.
Choosing the sand
Ten years ago, Ott’s life seemed destined for a different path. He joined the youth ranks at Grasshoppers Zurich at the age of 12 and progressed through each level before failing to make the leap to the U-21 team, something the man from Sattel admits was “a brutal setback”. His mother’s friend, former beach soccer international Franziska Steinemann, soon persuaded him to switch from turf to sand. "It brought back the joy of football for me,” Ott explained. “The appeal of beach soccer lies in its love and passion for the beautiful game. It’s a sport, but also a lifestyle.
"In Switzerland it’s often said that the only people who play beach soccer are those who didn’t make it in on grass,” the 23-year-old continued, “but that’s simply not the case. I made the choice to move into beach soccer. For me, there’s nothing better. I’m able to travel the world for my hobby, and unfortunately that’s all it is right now. My dream would be to make a living from the sport somehow. Right now we don’t earn any money at all and play the game alongside our normal jobs. I think there are hardly any players around the world who can make a living from beach soccer."
Ott's progress in the sport culminated in his maiden call-up to the national team in 2012. "Noel’s a super lad; he’s down-to-earth and a team player,” said his coach Angelo Schirinzi. “His skills are outstanding. His pace, ball control, coordination and, of course, his perfect overhead kicks are all exceptional."
Ott is determined to show off these skills again on the international stage in a few weeks time, some 7,700km from home. The one thing he will not get to experience in the Bahamas is a showdown with Messi’s compatriots, who will be watching the Beach Soccer World Cup from home for the first time in the competition’s history after losing to Ecuador on penalties in qualifying.