One of the world's top goalkeepers on sand, Spain's Roberto Valeiro is preparing for his fourth appearance at the biggest tournament in the global beach soccer calendar. With Dubai 2009 just a matter of weeks away, La Roja's No1 is hoping his side can finally repeat their European triumphs on the most important stage of all.
"At the very least we have to do as well as we did last year and reach the semis," he tells FIFA.com, setting out Spain's objectives for the big event. "Beyond that, if we can reach the final, then great, and if we go on and win the thing, well then we'll all be happy."
The Spaniards have amassed seven continental crowns over the last decade but have yet to go all the way in the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, despite reaching all four finals competitions to date. "The World Cup is a very special tournament," explains Valeiro, who missed the 2007 finals for personal reasons. "You come up against sides you know very little about and who can surprise you. It's much tougher for us to reproduce the results we get in Europe, where we all know each other very well. You also have to remember that it's usually played at a time of year when we're out of season."
Valeiro was named goalkeeper of the tournament at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Marseille 2008, where Spain were knocked out in agonising fashion. "I've got some unfinished business from that World Cup and I want to finish it in Dubai," says the 35-year-old gloveman before revealing the cause of his discontent. "I saved a penalty in the semi-final shootout against Italy but the referee ordered it to be re-taken. They scored and they won," he recalls with some anguish.
It was in another thrilling penalty shootout that Spain clinched the European title against Russia earlier this year, with an amazing 26 spot-kicks being needed to separate the sides.
"It was exhausting," laments the PE graduate, who one day hopes to go into education. "Penalty shootouts are black or white and this was a really tough one because I saved three and three more had to be re-taken. I was shattered at the end and didn't feel like moving for three or four days afterwards. Obviously we celebrated in style but I don't have great memories of it all. It was very stressful."
The Spain team will be heading to a training camp in Melilla, in northern Africa, next week to start their preparations for a group phase in which they will face one of the Asian qualifiers, Côte d'Ivoire and El Salvador. "We need to have a lot of respect for all our rivals and really watch out for them," comments Valeiro. "But, first and foremost, we need to make sure we do things right. On paper, and with all due respect, I think we're stronger than the other teams, and if we do things right, we should go through. How easy that will be just depends on our opponents."
So who does the experienced custodian see as the favourites in Dubai? "Russia have had a fantastic season and they've come on so much in recent years," he replies. "Portugal are ever-presents who play a really high standard of beach soccer and are always there or thereabouts. Spain will be in there for sure because we've done really well in Europe, and though Italy have not been that consistent this year, they're always in the mix. And obviously there's Brazil, the holders and the champions for the last three years, and Argentina and Uruguay. You definitely can't rule out them out either."
A coach's eye
An assistant coach with Spanish third division side Bergantinos, Valeiro is well qualified to assess Spain's strengths. "In Amarelle and Nico we've got two players who can make all the difference. They're so important to us. As a team we also back each other up, both in attack and defence. If someone's having a bad day, other people can chip in and that gets us through," he explains, modestly failing to add that he is one of the finest keepers in the discipline today.
A beach soccer devotee since 1997, Valeiro is always looking to learn new things from the professional keepers he watches on TV and his counterparts on the circuit. "There are some great keepers in the sport, like Russia's Andrey Bukhlitskiy, Stefano Spada of Italy, Marcelo Salgueiro of Argentina and Uruguay's Diego. In beach soccer keepers participate more than they do in football, especially in terms of attacking because they dictate how the team goes forward," continues Valeiro, a real observer of the game. "You also need to be ready for the unexpected because you just can't predict the way the ball bounces on the sand."
Apart from anything else, the Galician custodian is expecting a punishing few days in Dubai. "The schedule's tighter. There are no rest days and that's going to make it a tougher World Cup. There's the tiredness you get from playing and then all the little knocks and strains add up because you can't get a rest. Mentally there's no let-up either. It wears you out more."
Despite the ordeals that lie ahead, Valeiro will have only one thing on his mind when he arrives in Dubai: avenging last year's untimely exit and helping Spain scale the summit of world beach soccer.