The northern hemisphere may be in the grip of greyness and drizzle, but its southern counterpart is currently basking in glorious sunshine averaging 30 degrees - ideal conditions for Beach Soccer's return to the agenda.  The South-American qualifiers, the first qualifying competition for the second FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, will kick-off this Sunday at Macaé in Brazil. And although the host nation qualifies automatically for Rio de Janeiro 2006, they nonetheless go into this continental competition as hot favourites.

With a squad re-energised by the introduction of three players born after 1980, Brazil can still count on such stars as the veteran Junior Negao, the athletic duo of Jorginho and Benjamin, not to mention the tough competitor Buru.

Hoping to stand between the Auriverdes and yet another trophy for their collection are a number of teams boasting broadly similar potential. But among them, one side in particular stands out: Uruguay. Led by a new coach - Brazilian Marcelo Mendes who took charge of Thailand for the inaugural FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup - the Celeste look the team most likely to clinch the first qualifying place. A few months on from their fabulous Latin Cup performance (they finished second after beating Portugal and giving Brazil a run for their money), the Uruguayans have a great chance of joining Brazil in Rio next November.

But before their thoughts can start turning to the Copacabana, they will need to see off an Argentina side of proven ability. After qualifying for Rio de Janeiro 2005, Argentina had some fine moments before eventually finishing the tournament in eighth position. In the Hilaire brothers (Ezequiel, Federico and Santiago), the Albicelestes boast an effective and spectacular triple-act.

Where the second qualifying spot is concerned, outsiders Peru and Venezuela should not be taken lightly. The Peruvians have been stressing at every available opportunity that while Brazil and Uruguay are in a class of their own, the other teams are pretty much at the same level. If they can hit the sand running against Argentina on the opening day, they could well find their road to Rio opening up before them. 

The Venezuelans, meanwhile, have invested a great deal of hope in their new Brazilian mentor Andrey Valerio Silva, a former coach of the Seleçao. But when push comes to shove, the demands of playing a match per day for a whole week could well see their inadequate preparations catch up with them.

Another deficiency likely to be exposed is the severe lack of experience of the Paraguay team. The only side not to have taken part in last year's qualifiers, Paraguay will arrive in Macaé with very slender hopes of qualification. Despite the presence of goalkeeper Ricardo Tavarelli - a member of the team that contested the FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan 2002™ and who played in two of the country's qualifying games for Germany 2006 - the Albirrojos and their coach Jorge Battaglia will see this tournament first and foremost as an opportunity to learn.

So, in a sense, the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Rio de Janeiro 2006 gets underway this weekend. The next zones to get down to business will be Asia and Oceania, where the preliminary tournaments commence in May.

The full schedule

Sunday 5 March
Uruguay - Paraguay
Argentina - Peru
Brazil - Venezuela

Monday 6 March
Peru - Uruguay
Argentina - Venezuela
Brazil - Paraguay

Tuesday 7 March
Paraguay - Venezuela
Uruguay - Argentina
Brazil - Peru

Wednesday 8 March
Peru - Paraguay
Venezuela - Uruguay
Brazil - Argentina

Thursday 9 March
Paraguay - Argentina
Venezuela - Peru
Brazil - Uruguay

Saturday 11 March
Semi-final 1: 2nd - 3rd
Semi-final 2: 1st - 4th

Sunday 12 March
Third place play-off