The gulf between Asia's beach powerhouses and the
continent's underdogs once again proved impossible to bridge as
a familiar trio booked their places at July's FIFA Beach Soccer
World Cup Marseille 2008.
For the consecutive second year, hosts United Arab Emirates and Japan qualified for the global showpiece by reaching the final, where the West Asians went on to defend their title with a breathtaking 4-3 win. Iran, meanwhile, comfortably secured their third shot at the world crown after overcoming China 4-1 in the third-place play-off.
After hosting and winning the fledgling continental event last year, UAE, under the guidance of Brazilian coach Marcelo Mendes, continued to impress throughout this year's preliminary competition in Dubai. They made light work of the group matches, brushing aside Uzbekistan 6-2 in the opener before cruising to a 5-0 victory over China. Cheered on by their adoring supporters, the hosts then triumphed 3-1 over Iran in the semi-final to book their passage to Marseille 2008.
Then, a year on from edging Japan 4-3 in last year's final, lightning struck twice as coach Mendes' side registered an identical win against the East Asians. The home team opened brightly by taking a 2-0 lead, but Japan twice came from behind to tie the scores at 3-3. Yet at the critical moment, it was last year's tournament MVP, Bakhit Alabadla, who popped up to score the winner.
Winning his second successive continental laurels with UAE came as a massive boost for Mendes, who believes his team can raise their game against the world's best at Marseille 2008. "With players like Bakhit, we have the quality to challenge the top teams," he said. "If our defence remains solid, we are more than capable of producing a few surprises at the World Cup stage."
Top award for Yamauchi
For Japan, however, the defeat to UAE did nothing to alter their status as one of Asia's most formidable sides. Takeshi Kawaharazuka's side had kept an unblemished record en route to the final, routing Philippines 8-2 before edging Iran 2-1 to advance to the last four, where a comfortable 7-1 win over China had set up their re-match with UAE.
Forward Shusei Yamauchi became the driving force behind Japan's impressive run as he topped tournament scoring chart with 12 goals, including a hat-trick in the final. Those applauding his scoring prowess included Mendes. "Before the game we had learned Yamouchi could be dangerous in front of goal, but he still managed to score three times," remarked the legendary former Brazilian star.
Despite claiming the best scorer award, Yamouchi kept a low profile and modestly attributed his goals to Japan's teamwork. "How many goals I scored is not important," he said. "I am just a part of the team where everyone fights for each other."
China meet familiar fate
Despite only playing in their third continental championship, China and Iran have developed a keen rivalry, and it was these two sides who once again locked horns in two decisive third-place play-off.
Team Meilli had run out 6-4 winners over their Chinese rivals at the same stage of Asia's first qualifying campaign in 2006 and this year's competition saw Farssad Falahtzadeh's side defeat Philippines 5-2 to set up a semi-final clash with a Chinese team who progressed thanks to a 4-3 win over Uzbekistan.
Revenge looked to be on the cards when China took their nemesis by surprise with a first-minute goal, but the Iranians quickly found their feet and came back to dominate the crunch tie, with Farid Boloukbashi scoring twice and Moslem Mesigar and Hassan Abdollahi also on target in a 4-1 win.
Coach Falahtzadeh later claimed it was the team's fighting spirit which carried them through. "After losing against UAE and Japan and being one goal down against China in the opening minute, our players still found the strengths to go through," he concluded. "I am very proud of the spirit they showed throughout our campaign."