Ever since a flamboyant Solomon Islands team overpowered Cameroon 5-2 and collected the first FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup win for an Oceanian Football Confederation (OFC) side in 2006 – while captivating the hearts of thousands of Rio de Janeiro fans in the process - it was clear for all to see that the region had a tremendous, if still raw, potential in the sport.
There has been constant improvement for Oceanian beach soccer since then, as OFC teams have shown substantial signs of technical improvement and an increasing passion for the game. That enthusiasm culminated with the tremendous success of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Tahiti 2013, which saw swarming crowds filling the stadium in Papeete and a remarkable fourth place finish for the hosts, who were just a penalty kick away from defeating four-time world champions Brazil and reaching the podium.
Aiming to take this progress to new heights and reach the whole of the region, FIFA Development joined forces with the OFC and the Fédération Tahitienne de Football during the 2013 tournament to organise a beach soccer seminar featuring Technical Directors and Beach Soccer representatives from member associations within the confederation. The results have been palpable and interest has soared, leading to initiatives such as the latest FIFA Beach Soccer Coaching Course, which gathered 25 participants in Vanuatu between 1 and 5 December.
“The main purpose of the course was to begin a new phase of development in beach soccer in Vanuatu. The focus was on long-term planning: identifying facilities to play beach soccer, developing grassroots activities and organising regular competitions at all levels, particularly as an extension to the existing football season,” explains FIFA beach soccer instructor Paul Toohey, who had already been at the helm of a similar course organised in Tonga in May.
“In the near future, I would expect New Caledonia and Tahiti to apply for courses,” says Toohey. “And it would be great to see Fiji active again in the game. New Zealand is another country with great potential should they wish to re-join the beach soccer family.”
Aiming for the long-term
The geographical features of the region and its passion for 11-a-side football combine for a bountiful environment for the development of beach soccer. In fact, more often than not beach soccer standouts in Oceania have a direct link with football, such as it is the case of two participants of the seminar: Richard Iwai and Chickau Mansale, both of whom have represented Vanuatu in World Cup qualifiers in football, beach soccer and futsal! It makes sense, after all: in a country with a population of just over 266,000, maximizing the talent to be applied in different branches of football is certainly a smart way to develop.
“We introduced a new generation of coaches to entry-level beach soccer coaching, with theory and practical sessions and we organised a couple of tournaments in parallel with the course”, Toohey explains. “For sure the potential for beach soccer in Oceania is great. Many kids in our region grow up playing football on the beach and they have an affinity with the sand from an early age. In fact, we often say our players are 'born on the sand', so in that sense the characteristics of our region are ideal.”
Keeping up with the pace with which the game of beach soccer is evolving around the world is no easy task, though, and requires the kind of commitment that took the Tahitians from unknown minnows to one of the best teams in the globe in a matter of a few years. “We cannot simply rely on the natural environment and our passion for the game. We need long-term commitment to developing the sport: organising and promoting more competitions and preparing the next generation of players who will play at the top level”, advises Toohey. “If our member associations can follow the lead of Tahiti and New Caledonia, for example, who have developed new competitions and included beach soccer in their grassroots programmes, that will help a lot to grow the game.