In the minds of many, Joseph-Antoine Bell will forever be remembered as the cat-like keeper who enchanted the French public during the 1980s and '90s.
After leaving his native Cameroon at the tender age of 20 to carve out a career in France, he enjoyed successful spells with Marseille, Toulon, Bordeaux and Saint-Etienne. Often kept out of the national side by the equally renowned Thomas N'Kono, Bell still managed to win two CAF Africa Cup of Nations (1984 and 88) and take part in a pair of FIFA World CupsTM (1990 and 94).
Not one to view the sport in purely monetary terms, Bell's motto is that: 'The currency of success is not the euro or the dollar, but rather the relationship between the satisfaction gained and the challenge faced'.
For the past two months, the man voted best African goalkeeper of all time a few years ago has been at the helm of the Cameroonian national beach soccer team, a side which has exceeded all expectations to win the African qualifying tournament for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2006.
A few days before departing for Rio de Janeiro, the coach of African champions spoke to FIFA.com about his players' achievement in reaching the tournament and preparations for the event itself.
FIFA.com: Joseph-Antoine, when did the magnitude of your players' achievement really sink in?
Joseph-Antoine Bell: I don't think it has actually hit me yet, primarily because my past as a professional footballer has taught me that every competition has its winner and I've always wanted it to be me. I can't say it's always worked out that way but that's always been my driving force. So I have to say that I prefer not to think of this performance as exceptional, as I know that would invite us to rest on our laurels.
Did you honestly think you were capable of winning the qualifying tournament?
Not at all. When I take part in a competition, I always say I want to go all the way but, first and foremost, I try to get as far as I possibly can. I don't automatically aim to reach the final and win it, as targeting a title might seem disrespectful to my opponents. If they're better, we should hold our hands up and admit it. But my objective is always to be able to say I've done my best, and that's precisely what I asked of the lads. I wanted it to be a great adventure for them.
Could you tell us about the brief history of beach soccer in Cameroon?
I put my squad together with players from the second division, as I wanted them to be available and enthusiastic. The advantage of beach soccer is that the sport is still a lot of fun, so I knew these boys would be coming along to enjoy themselves. But I also know from experience that once you are on the pitch, you always want to win, so I was able to tell the players: "Yes, we're going to Durban to have fun, but don't lose sight of the target. What's important is the tournament." In this way, I was able to get them working in a relaxed but conscientious manner.
After taking over as coach just a few weeks before the qualifiers, how did you prepare?
When I took the job, I knew I was going to have to rely on players who were completely new to this discipline, so the first thing we needed to do was get used to the playing surface. They also needed to acquire a certain amount of knowledge on the rules of the game. From the outset, I emphasised to them that they weren't competing with each other, but with the opposing players.
And then there was the saga of your departure for Durban.
A few days before travelling to South Africa, we realised that seven of our players, having never left the country before, didn't even have passports. So for the last three days, I was forced to dash about trying to find lads who would be able to travel. It was Eugene Ekeke who got me out of this fix by offering the Cameroonians who play for the club he coaches in Gabon. But we still had to obtain South African visas for these newcomers and to do that, we needed a letter declaring that we were replacing the others with them. Consequently, we left with just five players, two of whom were goalkeepers.
You began the competition with a defeat on penalties by Côte d'Ivoire. Was it the arrival of the new players that turned things around for the second game or did you alter your preparations?
I truly believe that it was that first game that enabled us to win the tournament. It was a magnificent match. Despite having a goalkeeper playing outfield and no substitutes, we managed to push the Ivorians all the way to the ill-fated penalty shootout. It was a unique feat and one that made the other teams sit up and took notice of us and our tremendous physical strength. Losing that game turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as just as our future opponents' fear was rising, I had real reasons to re-motivate my players. I had to congratulate them on having kept fighting to the end, but I also rammed home the message that we'd failed to get any points on the board. But it probably only worked because the new players arrived on the morning of our second match. Without them, we wouldn't have been able to keep it up.
How would you define your side's style of play?
Because of their league football background and lack of experience in beach soccer, my players have a tendency to play more on the ground than in the air, but I'm trying to advise them in such a way that they improve and use their technical ability to optimum effect.
What stage are you at in your preparations for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup?
I've discovered my team's strengths and focused my efforts on them. It's too late to change everything so I prefer to bank on their qualities and run the risk of their weaknesses being exposed. At the moment, we're together in a coastal town in Cameroon, where the sand is very similar to Rio de Janeiro. Here, I'm making sure my players come back down to earth. For sure, theirs is a tremendous achievement, but I would never forgive myself if I let them get big-headed about it. We're leaving for Brazil this week, which should give us enough time to recover from the jet-lag and get used to the climate.
What do you expect from the tournament?
Quite honestly, nothing at all. I just want my players to be happy to have competed in this World Cup. Let's not kid ourselves: players who only discovered beach soccer two months ago are not going to become world champions. But I'll be telling my players that they are masters of their own destiny. I just want them to give 110% per cent. Common sense tells me that we can't go all the way, but my players will be determined to give some of the top teams a run for their money.