Beach kings made to earn crown
Their counterparts in the traditional form of the game may boast a tally of five wins from 18 FIFA World Cups™, but Brazil's beach soccer team would shudder at such figures. Winners of three out of four FIFA Beach Soccer World Cups, the Auriverde left yet another stamp on the history of the discipline, despite looking far less imperious on Prado beach than in years gone by.
"This evening we are all full of joy," said coach Alexandre Soares, speaking to FIFA.com. "But very soon we will have to get back on to the pitch and work hard. Our opponents have progressed so much that it will be more and more difficult to defend this trophy."
That admission to difficult days applied less to the final, however, in which Italy added some respectability to the scoreline by clawing back to within two goals a few moments before the end. Crowds totalling nearly 180,000 were none the less enchanted by Soares and his Seleção, who for once did not merely depend on one or two thrilling talents. Players like Daniel, Sidney and Andre proved excellent additions to a mix already rich with the likes of Benjamin, Buru and Bruno.
Squad depth also served the Azzurri well, with Giancarlo Magrini's men featuring no real stars but profiting from an unrivalled sense of unity. The Italians put together a historic campaign that saw them qualify from the group stage for the first time before finishing the tournament as runners-up.
Amarelle, a star among stars
Given real impetus by young prospects such as Massimiliano Esposito, Giuseppe Soria and Stefano Spada, and with older heads Roberto Pasquali and Simone Feudi there to guide them, Italy ought to have an exciting future ahead of them.
Occupying third place after the sand settled in Marseille, Portugal can reflect on some brilliant performances that perhaps deserved greater reward. "Technically, we were a lot better than we have been in the past," Selecção das Quinas trainer Ze Miguel told FIFA.com. "I'm certain we'll be able to win this cup very soon."
As long as they have Madjer in their ranks, the Portuguese could well prove their coach right. The goalscorer supreme won his third adidas Golden Shoe in four editions of the tournament, and was ably backed up by Belchior - adidas Bronze Ball and adidas Bronze Shoe winner, and a mouth-watering new find.
Spain fielded a jewel of their own in Amarelle, who walked away with the adidas Golden Ball and adidas Silver Shoe. He and his colleagues left the competition heartbroken, though, having seen their bid collapse suddenly with a place in the final theirs for the taking. "I knew my team was capable of great things," commented Spanish coach Joaquin Alonso. "Next year I hope to find two or three great players to take the pressure off Amarelle from time to time. That will make us a lot stronger."
Standards on the rise
In general terms, the quality of play on offer was of a noticeably higher standard than last time out, continuing the upward trend that has been evident each year since 2005. Brazil's troubled route to glory was sufficient evidence of that on its own, with Italy providing courageous opposition in the showpiece match, Portugal proving unlucky in the last four and even Russia coming close to upending the beach soccer kings in the quarter-finals.
Still spurred on by veteran campaigner Nikolai Pisarev, the FIFA Fair Play award winners made great strides as an attacking force this year, courtesy of clinical finisher Egor Shaykov. Assuming they can remain as rigorous and solid as they were here, they could well spring a number of surprises in tournaments to come.
The same could be said of Argentina too. Typically seen as astute tacticians, the Albiceleste now pose a more rounded threat thanks to the contributions of effective attacking duo Federico Hilaire and Facundo Minici.
France lacked exactly that, meanwhile, falling short due to an over-reliance on the form of Jeremy Basquaise and Didier Saumon. Eric Cantona's troops will take a long time to recover after failing to meet expectations on home soil, but the seeds of a bright future appear to be present in youngsters David Martinon, Steeven Octavia and, above all, Romain Tossem.
Celeste struggle with fatigue
How Uruguay must be wishing they could say likewise. Finalists and bronze medallists in the previous two editions, the South Americans could only reach the quarter-finals in Marseille. Ricar, Parrillo and Pampero remain exceptional competitors, but they often seemed to tire dramatically in the latter stages of games.
They at least survived the group phase, however, despite Senegal probably deserving to progress from Group A more than any other side. With Al Seyni Ndiaye still performing miracles between the posts, the Lions of Teranga brought real vibrancy to the festivities and would have advanced to the last eight for the second time in succession had they not lost to the Uruguayans in extra-time. In Pape Koukpaki they also possess a exquisitely skilled striker, but he will have to improve his finishing if he is to be classed alongside the best in the business.
Mexico's Morgan Plata belonged to that elite club last year and has since left the sands behind him to pursue a career in the traditional form of the game. In his absence, El Tri Playero had little to recommend them, and less than a year after reaching the final in Rio de Janeiro, Ramon Raya's charges failed to grace the knockout phase.
See you in Dubai!
The United Arab Emirates must also improve if they are to provide tough opposition as hosts next year, and the list of teams who need to make major strides ahead of Dubai 2009 ought to be extended to include Cameroon, Iran, Japan, Solomon Islands and El Salvador.
Neutrals may be hoping to see a few more goals when the competition moves to the Middle East, but if Marseille 2008 was the least prolific of the four FIFA Beach Soccer World Cups so far, that had a lot to do with the excellent standard of goalkeeping. Aside from Spain's Roberto Valeiro, winner of the inaugural adidas Golden Glove, Russia's Andrey Bukhlitskiy, Marcelo Salgueiro of Argentina and El Salvador's Luis Rodas all left a memorable impression on the Mediterranean coast.
For all those reasons, the competition's first voyage beyond Brazilian shores must go down as a remarkable success. Little by little, it has forced its way into the reckoning as one of the most significant events in the sporting calendar since its inception four years ago - to that extent that the growing army of beach soccer enthusiasts can hardly wait to watch the world's finest talents reconvene in Dubai a year from now.
Argentina, Brazil, Cameroon, United Arab Emirates, Spain, France, Iran, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, Russia, Solomon Islands, El Salvador, Senegal, Uruguay
1 - Brazil
2 - Italy
3 - Portugal
4 - Spain
259, or an average of 8.09 per match
Madjer (POR), 13
Amarelle (ESP), 11
Belchior (POR), 10