It’s not every day that you come across an international beach soccer star whose success on the sand is matched by his mastery of the 11-a-side game. In fact, the all-round attacking prowess of goal-poacher Isiaka Olawale is key to Nigeria’s prospects at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, which kicks off today in Ravenna. Besides being a member of the national beach soccer team, Olawale is also a leading light in the Nigerian Premier League with Kwara United, where his goals from midfield have so far earned him two international caps on grass.
Despite having lost to Senegal in the final of the CAF qualifying tournament for Ravenna 2011, the Beach Eagles are Africa’s most experienced contenders with three world finals appearances already under their belt, including a top-eight finish in 2007. During each campaign they have relied on the finishing skills of Olawale, Nigeria’s all-time leading marksman in the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup with nine goals in total, three in each instalment.
Passion for the game
Olawale’s success on two fronts owes much to his insatiable appetite for football, as he explained to FIFA.com in an exclusive interview before his team’s last training session on Italian sands. "I got to know beach soccer through watching matches on TV,” said the west African ace, “and I immediately liked it for the style of play and the free spirit that drives the game. I started playing from there and haven’t stopped since."
This determination to diversify his skills has undoubtedly benefited Olawale’s career, not to mention the fortunes of the Nigeria national beach soccer team. Despite still being only 27 years old, Olawale is a veteran international who has led the Beach Eagles in numerous continental qualifying campaigns, finishing tournament top-scorer in 2007 and earning the best player award in the 2011 event.
Although the goalscoring burden will fall primarily on his shoulders at the Ravenna showpiece, given the absence of fellow sharpshooter Agu Gabriel through injury, Olawale refuses to set a specific target. “I don’t want to place limits on myself. Hopefully I can score a hatful and help take Nigeria as far as possible here in Ravenna.”
The Nigerian dangerman is also unfazed by the prospect of a tough opening match against Russia. "We know they are a very strong team but we don’t fear them, we have put in two good weeks of preparation in Portugal; we’re in great shape and we can hold our own against anyone,” said the forward, who is predicting an open competition. “The beauty of this sport is that so many teams have a chance of winning, not just the two or three favourites, and that also applies to the others in our group, Venezuela and Tahiti."
Indeed anything is possible in this game, judging by the giant strides Nigeria have made since their national beach soccer team was founded in 2006. In the space of five years, the Beach Eagles have established themselves as one of Africa’s dominant forces, reaching the final of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup qualifying tournament in four out of five attempts. In the process they have notched two continental titles and finished runners-up twice, powered throughout by the goals of Olawale.
On a personal level, the forward is hopeful that success in Ravenna and in the Nigerian Premier League will hasten his return to the national 11-a-side team and eventually a move overseas. "The dream is to end up playing in Europe, on grass,” said Olawale, his ambition as boundless as ever. “I’m still young, I can do it.”