Russia is the largest country of those represented at Marseille 2008. It also has the longest coastline, along which its beach footballers have honed the skills which have provoked a stunning transformation.
The Russians only played their first FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup qualifier in 2006, losing 10-0 to England, but the meteoric speed with which the team has ascended into a continental force has befitted a land that first launched satellites into space. Indeed, Nikolai Pisarev's side won two of the four events - and finished runners-up in a third - in the regular season of the 2007 European Beach Soccer League, and in May they seized bronze at the Superfinals for a second successive year.
"In 2005, beach soccer received little attention in Russia. I wanted to change this so I organised a match and persuaded famous ex-players like (Alexsandr) Mostovoi and (Valerei) Karpin to play," explained Pisarev. "It brought attention to the sport and a TV company in Russia started covering beach soccer. It became much more popular among Russians and we got more and more support from the RFU, which helped turn us into the strong team we are today."
Having established themselves as contenders in Europe, Russia now want to repeat the feat on the global stage - something they failed to do at Rio de Janeiro 2007, despite an admirable but unavailing effort to reach the knockout phase. They lost to the two eventual finalists, Brazil and Mexico, on penalties [Russia's 2-2 draw with the former was the only time the Seleção have scored fewer than four goals in a match], in between which they beat Solomon Islands 5-2. The Russians exited with their hearts broken but their heads held high.
The draw has smiled far more favourably on the Eastern Europeans this time round. With United Arab Emirates, Cameroon and Argentina for company, Russia are the favourites to emerge atop of Group C and, consequently, earn what should be a more favourable quarter-final opponent. Pisarev has, nonetheless, warned his charges against complacency as they prepare to open up against the Albiceleste.
"," he insisted. "African teams are always dangerous, United Arab Emirates will be out to make an impression, and Argentina are a good side with a lot of experience."
According to the bookmakers, only three captains have a greater chance of lifting the trophy on 27 July than Ilya Leonov. Pisarev believes the trio, Junior Negao of Brazil, Frenchman Jeremy Basquaise and Portugal's Hernani, will leave Marseille disappointed. "I believe we can go all the way," he said.
"It's very important we concentrate on getting out of the group stage. After that, we'll see, but in my opinion we have what it takes to win the World Cup."