After a marathon 24 matches in six days, three-quarters of the scheduled fixtures at Rio de Janeiro 2006 have already been played. Predicting a winner remains a delicate affair, however, and even though Spain and Italy will certainly not be lifting the trophy following their shock early exits, traditional powerhouses Brazil, France and Portugal all look to be hitting top gear. With the quarter-finals due to be contested tomorrow, FIFA.com takes this opportunity to look back at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2006 group stage and pay homage to the sides who will take no further part.
Group A: Brazil on top as predicted
When the draw for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2006 was first made, hardly anyone anticipated the hosts finishing anywhere but first in their section. After all, Brazil is the spiritual home of the sport, as any stroll down Copacabana Beach will reveal. At all hours of the day, hundreds of children can be found enjoying a kick-about on the sand, often with the ball nearly as big as the youngsters themselves. Football is king here and Alexandre Soares's men proved that in style throughout the first round, with the only dark cloud being a defence that shipped ten goals in three games.
The struggle for second place was a different matter altogether and was eventually decided in the final seconds of Japan's match against Poland. Twenty two seconds from the end, to be precise, Japanese captain Takeshi Kawaharazuka struck the crucial blow for his team and extinguished Polish hopes. Jacek Ziober's side have only themselves to blame, however, as much was expected of them and striker Sagan after their third-place finish in the European League this year. As for the USA, they demonstrated admirable progress since their 2005 campaign and came close to snatching second. They were also the only team to give the formidable hosts a decent contest.
Group B: Spain shown the door
Crowned European champions in Marseilles this August, Spain arrived in Rio with lofty ambitions and were widely regarded as one of favourites to take the global title. Few could have anticipated them falling at the first hurdle, but that is precisely what happened. Apart from an impressive first period in their Group-B opener against France, the Iberians never reached anything like their full potential. With forwards of the calibre of Amarelle and Nico in their ranks, it was also a surprise to see La Seleccion fire in a modest ten goals. Appearing disorganised in every area, their mistakes proved very costly, as is so often the case in beach soccer.
Spain's misfortune was Canada's joy, though, with the Canucks celebrating second place behind the masterful French. Winners in a penalty shoot-out against Iran in their first outing, the Canadians understood they had little hope against the world champions and elected to focus all their efforts on their final match instead. It was a strategy that paid off handsomely, and their 4-0 victory over the Spaniards means they become the first North American side to reach the quarter-finals. Propping up the group, meanwhile, were Iran, who were given a glimpse of the distance they still have to travel in this sport. Their physical strength may be impressive, but the Iranians need to improve their technique before they can mount a challenge at this level.
Group C: Favourites go through
Pre-tournament predictions proved accurate in Group C, where newcomers Cameroon and the Solomon Islands always faced an uphill task against one of the top three sides on the planet (Portugal) and South American runners-up Uruguay, who also reached the quarter-finals last year. As it happened, Portugal and Uruguay won safely through in that order.
No one should be fooled into thinking the debutants simply rolled over, however. For their part, the Solomons Islanders brought a refreshing sparkle to the competition, not to mention a gifted goal-scorer in James Naka. The diminutive left-footer struck five times and did much to enhance his country's reputation, while Joseph-Antoine Bell's Cameroon approached the tournament believing they had a realistic chance of going through. After a slow start, the Indomitable Lions gradually ironed out their mistakes and left Rio on a high with a penalty shoot-out win over Uruguay. Both teams will be determined to come back even stronger next year.
Group D: Argentina impress
Despite many people expecting Italy to dominate this section, it fell to the team that finished third in the South American qualifiers to come out on top. With the talented Lopez Hilaire brothers pulling the strings, the Albiceleste navigated Group D without ever looking uncomfortable and could emerge as the tournament's surprise-package. That title could just as easily be taken by Bahrain, though, after the Asian champions made the step up to the world stage with apparent ease. Second in the group behind Argentina, Gustavo Zlocewick's charges should not be under-estimated by anyone, especially now that star player Abdulla Ismaeel Omar has finally joined up with the rest of the squad.
Heading home, on the other hand, the Azzurri proved just as disappointing as their continental counterparts from Spain. European champions last year and fourth this time around, the Italians seemed destined for a place in the last eight, only to weigh in with some truly sub-par performances. They lost all three matches and quit the competition with just six goals to their name, less than any other team. Even the youthful Nigerians (average age of 20) fared better, and can count themselves unlucky to be packing their bags. Winners over Italy in their opening fixture, they were eventually undone in a tense shoot-out with Bahrain (4-3) that saw two vital points go to their rivals. They too will be eager to bounce back next time round.
Quarter-final line-up (Thursday 9 November)
France - Japan
Brazil - Canada
Portugal - Bahrain
Argentina - Uruguay