At the start of the season, who would have bet on Poland making it all the way to Copacabana beach in Rio in November? The Central Europeans were still in Group B at the beginning of the summer, but an incredible run of results since then saw them make it through to the Superfinal in Marseilles, and eventually qualify for the 2006 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup .
Straight after leading his men to a historical third place finish in the 2006 European League, Poland manager Jacek Ziober talked exclusively to FIFA.com about his team's incredible performance.
Jacek, people remember you as a football player, as a centre-forward for the Polish team. What sparked your interest in beach soccer?
It all began four years ago, when the President of the Polish Football Federation showed me a video of the beach soccer world championship. I took to the sport immediately, and when he told me about the progress other teams were making in Europe, we decided to organise the first ever Polish beach soccer championship in 2002, from which I picked my first national squad. I remember our first friendly international, against Norway - it was an incredible feeling.
What was it that caught your imagination as far as beach soccer is concerned?
You have to have an incredible amount of skill to control the ball on sand, and that's what I like most about the sport - the skills that the players show. The atmosphere as well at the matches is wonderful. And unlike football, you never see any trouble among the fans. Every match is a party.
How is it that beach soccer has managed to make such startling progress in Poland?
Our players have really come on in leaps and bounds thanks to our league championship. We're up to 70 registered teams now, which makes it easy to see where we are making progress and what we need to concentrate on in order to improve.
The league must be a great help for you as manager of the national team…
We arrange a get-together for two to three weeks every year, with about 20 - 25 players. This gives me the chance to pick the best ones for the national team, and gives the players the chance to set their sights on things like wearing a Poland shirt, singing the national anthem. They're very proud of the team too.
This is your first managerial post. How would you describe your coaching style?
I think you can say that I've picked up some of the methods from coaches who helped me during my playing career. I also watch a lot of video-tape, and I talk with the players and other coaches. I honestly believe that you can always learn something new, no matter how old you are.
A lot of people say that the Poland team is very physical. Is this something that you encourage?
Well first of all, some of my players still play fourth division football in Germany in the amateur leagues, which is why they're all as fit as they are. Ditto for those who play futsal, and this may explain why we tend to play direct, aerial balls.
Can you talk us through your squad and the stars you have in your team?
Whenever you talk about beach soccer in Poland, Sagan is the name that gets mentioned. It's true that he is an excellent striker and a very spectacular player, but I think that he can still get even better, and has a long way to go until he realises his full potential. Overhead kicks are great to watch, I know, but I think he could still do more with the ball when he has it on the deck.
After that, there's Kenny and also Viki. The latter is still a very young player, and I'm sure that he will be up among the world's elite in one or two years' time.
With hindsight, how do you analyse the incredible improvements which Poland has made to become one of the main powers in European beach soccer?
To begin with, it was just plain hard work. For three years, when we were playing in Groups B and C, we'd win some, lose some, but the main thing was that we learned a lot. Last year, we almost made it up into Group A, only losing to Switzerland on penalties, and that motivated us even more. We knuckled down and decided that we were definitely going to do it this season. I don't want to sound pretentious, but I can honestly say that I knew that we would win Group B. I knew that we were up to the challenge.
When we got up among the elite, we took stock pretty quickly and realised that, while Spain and Portugal might still be a class above us, Italy and France were beatable, so we just carried on working hard at our game. We definitely had a little bit of luck in some of the games, but there was more to it than that.
Nevertheless, you must have been surprised when you qualified for Rio de Janeiro 2006?
Of course. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that that was our aim all along. No-one expected us to qualify, not even the Polish Federation, which made it all the more incredible.
How are you preparing for November's tournament?
Things are a little complicated for us. At the moment, we have two permanent pitches, but they aren't covered, so I think that we'll end up going to Germany for ten days or so to prepare, since they have a lot of gyms where beach soccer can be played.
Finally, how far do you think you will get in Rio?
If I take part in a competition, I always expect to do well. I can't see myself telling my players just to go out there and have fun, so let's say that I hope that we will get through the first round (from Group A, along with Brazil, a CONCACAF qualifier and Japan). Anything else would be a bonus.