If, in the wake of his side’s opening match on Thursday 1 September, someone had asked El Salvador’s Rudis Gonzalez whether his side would make the semi-finals of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2011, the coach would undoubtedly have dismissed the prospect out of hand. Not due to his lack of belief in his players, but because, in their first match at the Ravenna showpiece, Los Cuscatlecos were simply unrecognisable from the side that had come second in their regional qualifying tournament.
"I was shocked. I watched the numbers on the scoreboard: nine, ten, eleven. I didn’t recognise my team. I asked myself whether I’d got the wrong match," explained Gonzalez to FIFA.com, reflecting on the Salvadorans’ ominous opening to the campaign, a humiliating 11-2 loss to Portugal. "We knew that the Portuguese had bags of quality but even so, I also knew that my team had character and fighting spirit. Unfortunately I didn’t see any of that. Leaving the pitch afterwards I felt sick to the stomach."
That opening-day drubbing was all the more surprising given that El Salvador were contesting their third straight FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, as runners-up in the CONCACAF preliminary event no less. Admittedly the Central Americans had lost all six of their outings in the competition before this year’s edition, at Marseille 2008 and Dubai 2009. But while they could not claim to be favourites to reach the last four, Gonzales’ charges were also no strangers to the global showpiece.
Change of tune
"The day after the match against Portugal, I gathered all the lads together and we had words. I told them: 'I’m not having that. I’m not talking about the result, losing against Portugal is understandable. What I can’t accept is that you didn’t do justice to your country, El Salvador, a poor country. You have a unique chance to represent your people with pride and you’re fully capable of doing so’. I think they changed their tune after that," continued Gonzalez.
Since that dressing-down the Salvadorans have certainly upped their tempo and have been showing off their skills to great effect. Two days after crumbling against Portugal, they overcame Oman, notching their first win in seven attempts at the sport’s premier event, before booking their berth in the quarter-finals courtesy of an improbable victory over Argentina. “I saw a very different team in that match,” recalled the Salvadoran strategist. “Not only had our belief returned, but it hasn’t stopped growing since. Technically we have always been there or thereabouts. So I came to realise that against Portugal, we weren’t ready psychologically. Now we are, and the results are there to prove it."