The moment beach soccer fans have been looking forward to for a year-and-a-half has finally come.
On Thursday, devotees of the discipline will come together on Rio de Janeiro's mythic Copacabana Beach to follow the start of the second FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, and the opening day promises to be a special occasion. Four newcomers (Nigeria, Bahrain, Cameroon and the Solomon Islands) make their debut as the competition gets underway, with the exotic showdown between the Bilikiki Boys and the Indomitable Lions in Group C sure to provide fireworks.
Group D: Argentina - Nigeria ( 09:40 )
The day's most uneven encounter sees the Super Eagles, who only recently discovered the discipline, test their mettle against the supremely-experienced Albiceleste. Add in the fact that the Africans have brought the youngest squad with an average age of just over 20, and it becomes clear that Kelechi Emeteole's charges have a daunting task on their hands. They also arrived in Rio at the last minute, 24 hours after their opponents, and could well suffer the effects of jet lag as the game progresses. "We don't really know what to expect from them," Argentina's captain Ezequiel Hilaire confessed to FIFA.com. "I see Nigeria as a very solid team in physical terms, but sometimes a bit disorganised." It would take a brave person to back a Nigerian win, but what would sport be without surprises?
Group C: Portugal - Uruguay ( 11:00 )
The competition may only just be getting started, but the crowds are in for an early treat as the most anticipated clash in Group C takes place between the vice-champions of Europe and South America. Both are being billed as favourites, so this opening-day encounter ought to give everyone a better idea of where each of them stands. Fifth last time out, Uruguay will feel all the pressure is on the Portuguese, who have finished runners-up in every competition they have entered in the last few months. For their part, Portugal are determined to end their unlucky run and leave Rio with a first ever title. "This year, it's not important to me to finish as top scorer," declared the Lusitanians' star striker Madjer. "I just want to reach the final and win it."
Group D: Italy - Bahrain ( 12:20 )
This is a tough one to call. Not long ago, nobody would have given Bahrain much of a chance, given their stuttering progress in the world of beach soccer, but that all changed when Gustavo Zloccowick's men stunned observers by winning the Asian qualifiers. They even underlined the point by securing their continental title against Japan, who so memorably finished fourth at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2005. The Squadra azzurra have also made impressive strides following their failure to book a place at the main event last year. Since then, Massimo Agostini's team have been crowned champions of Europe and finished fourth in the same tournament this season, which all suggests this game will have a huge bearing on who goes through to the quarter-finals.
Group C: Solomon Islands - Cameroon ( 13:40 )
Thursday's final fixture is sure to be one of the most enthralling as two sides with nothing to lose make their grand entrance at this level. Drawn alongside Portugal and Uruguay in Group C, the Bilikiki Boys and the Indomitable Lions would create a huge upset if either managed to progress - especially the former, who are making their first ever appearance in a FIFA tournament.
"The crowds love to see newcomers," their coach Viv Wickham told FIFA.com. "In terms of experience and notoriety, there's no doubt we are the underdogs in this group. But we've upset so many predictions and overcome so many obstacles just by making it to Rio that stage fright is merely another hazard to deal with." His opposite number Joseph-Antoine Bell is more concerned that his charges enjoy themselves: "I just want my players to be happy that they've taken part in this World Cup" he says.
All the ingredients look to be in place for an intriguing spectacle.