When the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Dubai 2009 gets underway on 16 November, Argentina will be one of just five teams who have taken part in every tournament. They are joined by Brazil, Uruguay, Spain and Portugal, as France, who participated in the four previous editions, did not qualify for this year's competition.
Despite their qualification record, La Albiceleste are the only member of that quintet still without a top-four finish. The quarter-finals have always been their stumbling block, losing at that stage to Brazil in 2005 and Uruguay in 2006, both times in Rio de Janeiro, and to Spain at Marseille 2008. In 2007, they failed to qualify from the group stage.
Nevertheless, their aim for this year is not simply to reach the semi-finals. "To finish in the top four would be a relief for the team, as we've been working together for a long time and we need to overcome the quarter-finals barrier. But I think we can make the final if we play to our full potential all week," Marcelo Salgueiro, the experienced Albiceleste goalkeeper, told FIFA.com.
And Salgueiro can speak with authority, having played in all 14 of Argentina's FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup matches at the four previous tournaments, conceding an average of just three goals per game. Born in Buenos Aires on 28 July 1976, the shot-stopper's career in 11-a-side football was cut short while playing for Racing Avellaneda reserves, as at 1.75m, he was considered too short.
So, how did he get into beach soccer? "At the age of 20 I gave up looking for a club, but a few years later when playing in a competition with friends, I saw people playing beach soccer and managed to get a trial with their team. I passed, and for a year I was in the squad, but I only started playing in 2004 when 'Pancho' (Francisco Petrasso, current Argentina coach) arrived on the scene," recalled Salgueiro, who as a youngster played on the right wing.
Now, however, he is goalkeeper for Napoli in the demanding Italian league, where this year he capped his first season by winning the national championship as well as the award for best goalkeeper. In the final, Napoli had to overcome a powerful AC Milan side featuring the likes of Bruno, Benjamin, Nico and Amarelle, among others.
A difficult but ideal group
Achieving their goal of reaching the final will not be easy though, as Argentina have been drawn in Group C with last year's runners-up Italy, as well as Russia, who lost the final of the European Championships on penalties, and debutants Costa Rica. But Salgueiro has absolute faith in his side. "It's a group where you could either finish top and emerge as a title contender, or be knocked out in the first round. But I'm well aware of our strengths and weaknesses, and if we play like I know we can, we shouldn't have any problems."
That said, the Italians and Russians are both considered title contenders, as the keeper says himself. "Those two can go all the way, as well as Portugal, Spain, Uruguay and Brazil, who are still a cut above the rest. Brazil don't play with the same flair as before, but they have improved tactically and are constantly raising their game. But I don't think we're too far behind them," says the Albiceleste No1.
Although Salgueiro believes that Argentina are at a disadvantage with regard to certain aspects of their preparation, such as a lack of friendly games, he is confident that they can perform strongly. "We always play well in the big games, which is why I think the group suits us. With the exception of Brazil in 2005, our quarter-final exits have all been very tight games. The teams which give us most trouble are the ones who, on paper, are not as strong. We've got to improve our mentality, which is what we're working on," says Salgueiro, who scored the winning goal in a hard-fought match against Ecuador to secure their place in Dubai.
While on that day he was the hero, Chelo, as he's known, has no ambitions to score at the finals nor to win the adidas Golden Glove, an award he contested at Marseille 2008 along with Spaniard Roberto Valeiro, who he believes is the best goalkeeper in the world. "All that matters to me is that the team wins. If I happen to pick up an individual award in the process, it's a bonus." In conclusion, he says, "My job is to make saves and give confidence to my team-mates. With our strong, experienced team, now is our chance to make Dubai 2009 Argentina's tournament."