The conference room at Marseilles' Sofitel Palm Beach Hotel was the place to be on Sunday as the draw for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2006 took place. On a star-studded evening, top players and coaches from the European game mingled with dignitaries from some of the world's major sporting organisations as well as local and regional leaders.
Click here for the Rio de Janeiro 2006 match schedule
Our host on a fun-filled evening that reflected the spirit of beach soccer was UK sports presenter Natalie Pinkham. Joan Cusco, executive vice-president of Beach Soccer World Wide (BSWW), got the proceedings under way with a warm and emotional speech before Fulvio Danilas, general manager of BSWW, and Gabino Renales, director of the Euro Beach Soccer League, took to the stage to hand out the awards for the newly completed season.
The big winners on the night were Portuguese marksman Madjer, Spain keeper Roberto and Poland's rising star Viki, and there was also a special mention for the referees and the successful tournaments held at Portimao (Group A) and Poddebice (Group B).
Then it was time for the assembled guests to relax and enjoy a short film of the highlights from last year's action-packed FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in Brazil. As the lights went up, Les Bleus striker Noel Scirotino could be seen clenching his fists in celebration as he relived France's stunning triumph on the sand of Rio de Janeiro.
Fair-play is the name of the game
Afterwards, Jerome Valcke, director of FIFA's Marketing & TV division, outlined FIFA's wholehearted commitment to beach soccer and spoke of his belief that no matter who hoisted the trophy come November, fair-play would be the winner. It was left to Jean-Pierre Escalettes, president of the French Football Federation, to round off the evening's speeches by highlighting the FFF's desire to support and promote the sport to the full before expressing his own wish for a repeat French victory in Rio.
Then came the moment everyone had been waiting for as Jerome Valcke and Fulvio Danilas returned to the stage to make the long-awaited draw, which threw up some intriguing pairings.
Poland and Japan were drawn together in a daunting Group A that also features a qualifier from the CONCACAF region and beach soccer powerhouses Brazil. After being drawn against newly crowned European champions Spain in Group B, holders France will be keen to avoid a slip-up against Iran and the second of the two CONCACAF representatives.
Portugal enjoyed better luck in Group C and should have few problems against Uruguay and two qualifiers from the CAF and OFC. Things look a good deal tighter in Group D, however, where Italy will do battle with Bahrain, Argentina and another CAF qualifier.
The guests then filed out of the hall animatedly discussing the fate of the 16 hopefuls before gathering again to toast Spain's victory earlier in the day and share a joke or two. By the end of an entertaining evening, the ties that bind the beach soccer community had become even tighter. Make no mistake, though, come Rio in November the competition out on the sand will be fierce.