Though there are still a few hours to go until the opening game at the 2006 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, conditions could not be better for the participating nations in Rio de Janeiro. Glorious temperatures, clear blue skies and the incomparable backdrop of Copacabana Beach have already wowed the finalists, and all that remains now is to get the ball rolling.
Springtime temperatures in Brazil are among the warmest anywhere on the continent, as today's balmy 27 degrees goes to show. It came as no surprise then to see hordes of beach soccer fans showcasing their skills late into the night on the city's most famous beach - proof, if any were needed, that Brazilian football never sleeps.
With most of the finalists settled in their accommodation yesterday, the visiting delegations were quick to fall under the city's spell. Strolling along the picturesque Avenida Atlantica just metres from the Cocacabana waterfront, the teams could have passed for tourists as they marvelled at the city's charms under the watchful eye of Christ the Redeemer.
"What can I say? It's incredible to be here. I can't find the words to describe the feeling," Argentina's Luciano Franceschini told FIFA.com. One can only imagine then what some of the players who have never set foot on the continent before, like the Nigerians - due to land later this evening - will make of it all.
The cool morning air is ideal for early work-outs. And Tuesday saw the start of the official training sessions at the stadium, just metres from the captivating, dark blue waters of the Atlantic. With finals fever taking hold, there seems to be more impromptu goalposts dotting its shores than sunbathers - but then again this is Brazil, the spiritual home of football.
What a difference a year makes
Those returning for the second FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup will find that there have been changes to both the competition's format and regulations since the 2005 edition some 18 months ago. For a start, the number of participating nations has increased from 12 to 16, allowing for an extra team in each of the four groups.
"Over and above the notable technical developments we've seen over the last year, I'm very pleased that we now have more teams taking part in the tournament," said Brazil coach Alexandre Soares. "This is testimony to how much this sport has grown in just one year."
There have also been changes to the Laws of the Game , principal among them the abolition of the blue card, the ability to now replace one's goalkeeper with any other player, and the unification of the criteria with respect to throw-ins with those of futsal and football. That said, all of these changes have already been in place at recent competitions, giving players adequate time to adapt.
The scene is now set for what should be a thrilling ten days action. We have white sands, blue waters and dazzling colours, and all we need now are for the finest players in the world to do what they do best. Let the party commence…