While the South American qualifying tournament spawned no real surprises, it did confirm the existence of a small elite in beach soccer. For while Brazil, true to form, won all their encounters to finish top of the table, the other two tickets for Rio de Janeiro 2006 were also claimed with considerable courage and panache.
The excitement began from the very first day. On the sands at Macaé, Uruguay had to wait for extra time to kill off a Paraguay side intent on proving they had not come just to make up the numbers (6-5 a.e.t.). Peru, for their part, knew a great deal depended on their opening game with Argentina. In the end, however, a late brace from Lopez secured the Albicelestes all three points (4-2).
After this opening display of dominance from the forces in South American beach soccer, the next key moment was the eagerly awaited meeting on day three between Uruguay and Argentina. Whereas the Celeste had been regarded by many to be as good as through, the Argentines proved their great progress in the discipline by recording an easy win (4-1). Meanwhile, Brazil continued to breeze through the tournament, netting a minimum of six times against each opponent.
Behind the leading trio, it was Venezuela who created the main surprise by claiming the semi-final place which had seemed earmarked for Peru from the outset. Having gifted the young Paraguayans their only success of the week (4-1) and surrendered three precious points to the Venezuelans on the last day (4-2), the Peruvians were forced to put their FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup hopes on hold until next year.
Venezuela upset the odds
Buoyed by their fine campaign, the Venezuelan Vinotinto then went into the semi-final against Brazil free from pressure. Having been hammered by the Brazilians in the first round (15-2), Andrey Valério da Silva's protégés could only manage a single goal (15-1) in their second meeting with a simply irresistible Seleçao line-up. But the day's other semi-final proved a much closer affair, as Argentina and Uruguay locked horns for the second time in four days, this time with the second place in Rio at stake. No doubt stung by the comprehensive defeat they suffered on the Tuesday, the Celeste threw all their forces into battle to clinch victory after extra time (5-4). Having each recorded one win over the other, the two nations are evidently on a similar level.
In the wake of their fine semi-final performance, the Uruguayan coach Marcelo Mendes could not hide his emotion. "It's absolutely amazing to have qualified for the World Cup after a match like that. These 12 players, plus the other five who had to stay at home, are like a family to me. I am sure that if we manage to keep up this standard of play, we will have a say in things in Brazil," he declared on CONMEBOL.com.
But they still have an awfully long way to go to catch up with Brazil. In the final, Jorginho, the top scorer and most spectacular player of this preliminary tournament, and his team-mates quite simply overwhelmed a Uruguay side that had perhaps taken its eye off the ball after already qualifying (9-2).
Drama in the match for third-place
Concentration was something Argentina needed in abundance to see off Venezuela in the match for third place. In the end, their hard-fought 2-0 victory earned the Albicelestes a place at their second consecutive FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup. Hector Francisco Petrasso, the Argentine coach, was mightily relieved after having experienced an unexpectedly stressful end of tournament. "After the good start we made to the competition, I never thought we would find ourselves in such a delicate situation in the final stages. Luckily, we have achieved our objective and now we are going to prepare so we can do as well as possible at Copacabana," he said.
This narrow victory also testifies to the considerable progress made in beach soccer by Venezuela. There is no doubt that players like Edgar, Francisco and Roby are excellent finds. Although the Venezuelans, having got so far, must have dreamed of making it to Rio, the prevailing feeling in their camp is first and foremost one of pride: "Reaching the semi-finals is a great success for us: that was always our target," stresses striker Edgar.
The next qualifiers will be contested by the countries of Asia and Oceania in Dubai in May, while the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Rio de Janeiro 2006 itself will take place from 2 to 12 November this year.
Top scorer: Jorginho (BRA), 14 goals
Best goalkeeper: Diego (URU)
Most spectacular player: Jorginho (BRA)