As autumn edges ever nearer in Europe, the beach soccer competitions are reaching their conclusion. In scarcely two months' time, the 'cream' of the sport will lock horns on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro at the second FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup.
During the course of a 2006 European League more evenly balanced than ever - the four stages were won by four different teams: Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain - Portugal showed once again that they are one of the best teams on the planet. Led by their striking phenomenon Madjer, the world runners-up now have but one ambition: to be crowned world champions.
Just behind the Iberian outfit in the final ranking are neighbours Spain, making a belated return to the top after a disappointing 2005.
Time for France to perform
But the biggest surprises come behind the leading pair. For while reigning world champions France have experienced a cruel dip in performance levels since Rio de Janeiro 2005, the form of Italy, Ukraine and Poland has been consistently improving. Complete unknowns just a year ago in the discipline - Poland only joined Group A at the start of the season - these countries are making an increasingly powerful impression on the European scene and are likely to be serious contenders in the near future.
But in order to develop further, they need to secure their qualification for Rio de Janeiro 2006 at the Superfinal in Marseilles. Taking place this Sunday on Prado beach, the final phase of the European league will establish the qualifiers for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup.
In a very tricky Group A containing Portugal and Italy, a great deal is expected of France. Disappointing so far, Eric Cantona's charges face the tough task of finishing in one of the first two places in order to book their place in Rio.
Draw to take place on Sunday
In Group B, the battle promises to be fierce, as Spain, Ukraine and Poland are all strong challengers. With so little to choose between the sides, the unquestionable class of Spain's Amarelle - back to his best like the team as a whole - could make the difference.
It is worth noting that it is not only the four semi-finalists who will earn tickets to Rio de Janeiro 2006. A "Last chance bracket" will permit one other side to join the beach soccer party in Brazil. This parallel event will feature the best teams from Groups B and C of the European league, joined in the second round by the 7th and 8th-placed sides from Group A (Greece and Switzerland) and those knocked out during the Superfinal group phase.
So this Tuesday in Marseilles, Europe's teams enter the home straight for Rio. And you can follow every day of the event exclusively on FIFA.com, right through to the draw for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup on Sunday evening.
Euro Beach Soccer League 2006 - Final ranking
1 -. Portugal, 33 points *
2 -. Spain, 29 points (+17) *
3 -. Italy, 29 points (-3) *
4 -. Ukraine, 28 points *
5 -. Poland, 23 points *
6 -. France, 19 points *
7 -. Greece, 12 points
8 -. Switzerland, 11 points
* Qualified for the Superfinal
Superfinal - 22-27 August 2006, Marseilles
Tuesday 22 August
Portugal - Italy (17:00)
Spain - Ukraine (18:30)
Wednesday 23 August
Portugal - France (17:00)
Spain - Poland (18:30)
Thursday 24 August
Italy - France (17:45)
Ukraine - Poland (19:00)
Saturday 26 August
Sunday 27 August
The four semi-finalists qualify for Rio de Janeiro 2006.
Last chance bracket
1st round - Thursday 24 August
Netherlands - Montenegro (11:00)
England - Russia (14:00)
Belgium - Czech Republic (15:15)
Germany - Hungary (16:30)
The winners of these matches will be joined in the second round by Greece, Switzerland (7th and 8th in the European league final ranking) and the two teams knocked out during the Superfinal group phase. The winner of the Last chance bracket also qualifies for Rio de Janeiro 2006.