Spain successfully defended their European crown with a close-fought win over Russia in the final of the continental qualifying tournament for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2009. The two finalists in the competition, held between 7 and 15 June in Castellon, Spain, will head a European contingent in Dubai also including Portugal, Switzerland and Italy. France, world champions in 2005, are set to miss the global showpiece for the first time after losing out in the play-offs.
La Roja can proclaim themselves European champions for at least another year, though they were pushed all the way by an up-and-coming Russian side in the final, which ended 4-4. With some 3,000 spectators on the edge of their seats, the two teams required 26 penalty kicks to separate them - the hosts edging the title after keeper Roberto saved from Shaykov. "This is great. It's been an incredible game of beach soccer. Anybody in the stadium will be a fan from now on, no doubt about it. You don't see matches like this often, it's like when Brazil play Portugal," said Spain's captain and star forward Amarelle afterwards.
The runners-up will take consolation from a brace of individual awards, with Ilya Leonov voted the tournament's Most Valuable Player while the Best Goalkeeper gong went to Dimitriy Bukhlitskiy.
A dream come true
Perhaps the side making the greatest strides on the European scene are Switzerland. After narrowly missing out on last year's FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup following a quarter-final defeat in qualifying against Russia, the Swiss sprung a surprise by finishing third this time around - including thrilling victories over two of the sport's biggest names. At the last-eight stage the Helvetians edged out Italy 5-3, thus consigning the Marseilles 2008 runners-up to a play-off berth, before defeating 2008 bronze-medallists Portugal in the match for third place. The icing on the cake was defender Moritz Jaeggy taking the Fair Play award.
"What mattered was qualifying for Dubai and we did it. It's been one of the best tournaments I've played in. I hope to play against Spain in the World Cup final!" said jubilant Swiss striker Stephan Meier after the win over Portugal.
France get the Bleus
Italy and France, meanwhile, were forced to contest a four-team play-off for a place at Dubai 2009. Following respective wins over Azerbaijan (11-4) and Romania (7-5) respectively, Azzurri and Les Bleus went head-to-head for the last available FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup slot. In the event it was collective discipline and the lethal finishing of Pasquale Carotenuto which turned the tide in the Italians favour, Carotenuto's hat-trick proving decisive in a 4-2 success. "I can't describe how I feel at the moment. It's very emotional," said the player, who also finished as the competition's top scorer.
Of the 26 teams involved at the start of the event on Spanish soil, there were also noteworthy performances from beaten play-off hopefuls Azerbaijan and Romania. Having reached the quarter-final stage, they were only prevented from going even further by two genuine heavyweights of global beach soccer: Portugal and Spain.