As Sunday’s final at Ravenna/Italy 2011 showed, times are changing in the world of beach soccer. Six years and 30 games after their last defeat in the competition, four-time world champions Brazil were swept aside 12-8 in the tournament’s showpiece, comprehensively beaten not by a long-established force in the game, such as their 2005 conquerors Portugal, but by new pretenders Russia.
Aside from the end of Brazil’s long reign and the emergence of a team with the potential to embark on one of their own, Sunday’s dramatic match brought further evidence of a major shift in the sport of beach soccer, with Russia’s flawless teamwork trumping Brazil’s individual talent.
From the start of the competition it was clear that there would be fewer resounding victories than in previous tournaments, with every side, from the favourites down to the minnows, displaying a solid grasp of tactics and defensive organisation.
“It’s incredible how tactical the game’s become,” Brazil coach Alexandre Soares told FIFA.com. “It was much harder to find spaces here, and for proof of that all you have to do is look at the scorelines and the way in which games unfolded.”
No one suffered more as a result of the levelling of standards than Soares’ side. Accustomed to winning big at the world finals, A Seleção’s most handsome margin of victory en route to the 2011 final was a mere three goals, achieved in the 5-2 defeat of Mexico in the group phase. Having never lost a match in normal time in six FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup competitions, they then succumbed in three periods to the close-knit Russians, who spearheaded the tactical revolution witnessed in Ravenna.
“I’m happy to have a team like this, a team in which all 12 players have mastered the basics, know our system and lack nothing in terms of quality,” said victorious Russia coach Mikhail Likhachev. “This is how a team sport should be.”
In addition to their collective virtues, the eastern Europeans also boasted the tournament’s outstanding player in captain Ilya Leonov, the man who made them tick and a grateful winner of the adidas Golden Ball.
“A lot of what we do revolves around him, and after the campaign we had I think it was a richly deserved award,” added Likhachev, who also derived satisfaction at seeing goalkeeper Andrey Bukhlitskiy collect the adidas Golden Glove in recognition of his displays between the posts.
Underdogs rise up
The end of Brazil’s beach soccer monopoly was not the only change afoot at Ravenna/Italy 2011, as the less-fancied nations punched above their weight, among them Oceania champions Tahiti. Making their maiden appearance at the competition, the 2013 hosts kicked off with a 5-2 victory over fellow new boys Venezuela, delighting the fans at the Stadio del Mare.
Though the Pacific Islanders failed to make it through the group phase, they could be proud of their efforts, as could the competition’s other first-timers Oman, who opened the tournament by taking the lead against Argentina. A 3-1 defeat was followed by further losses to Portugal and El Salvador, but the Omanis far from disgraced themselves.
Senegal were another unfancied outfit to impress. Spurred on by their large band of dancing fans, the Lions of Teranga took the impressive Portuguese all the way to penalties in a thrilling quarter-final.
Nevertheless, the biggest fairy tale of them all was El Salvador’s unlikely run to the semi-finals. Not even the most optimistic of their fans would have imagined they would still be in action on the last day of the tournament, especially after they kicked off with an 11-2 reverse at the hands of Portugal. That defeat was their seventh loss in as many FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup matches, the CONCACAF champions having lost all their games at Marseille 2008 and Dubai 2009.
Belying their status as whipping boys, the Central Americans then broke their duck against Oman, going on to upset Argentina to set up a quarter-final against the host nation. El Salvador’s tournament tale then took a sensational twist as they ousted the Italians in extra-time, a triumph watched by a growing army of compatriots resident in Italy, who had a new hero to cheer in the form of Frank Velasquez. Dubbed “Romario” due to his squat frame and skill on the ball, the prolific striker made off with the adidas Bronze Ball and adidas Bronze Scorer awards.
Fellow forward Andre provided a telling reminder of the wealth of individual talent still at Brazil’s disposal, hitting six goals in the final to end the tournament as the adidas Golden Scorer, while Portugal’s Madjer was as lethal as ever in front of goal, finishing as one the top two scorers for the third time running.
And one other thing that did not change from previous tournaments was the electrifying atmosphere in the stadium, whipped up by a heady mix of non-stop music, the Beach Babes cheerleaders and goals, goals and more goals.
There will be more of the same in two years’ time, when Russia will attempt to defend their crown in the idyllic surroundings of Tahiti. It promises to be quite a party.
Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador, Iran, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria, Oman, Portugal, Russia, Senegal, Switzerland, Tahiti, Ukraine and Venezuela
4. El Salvador
269 (average 8.4 per match)
Andre (Brazil) - 14
Madjer (Portugal) - 12
Frank Velasquez (El Salvador) - 9
adidas Golden Ball: Ilya Leonov (Russia)
adidas Golden Scorer: Andre (Brazil)
adidas Golden Glove: Andrey Bukhlitskiy (Russia)