Back on top of the world, Brazil will probably put their
performance in last year's competition down to an aberration;
the kind of wild upset that happens from time to time. Having
surrendered their global crown to Portugal in 2001 and France in
Auriverde set the record straight this time around to
claim their tenth title in the discipline. Alexandre Soares's
men did so in stunning fashion too, never once looking ruffled
during ten days of intense action on Copacabana Beach.
True, they conceded an uncommon amount of goals to the USA in a group game with little at stake (10-6) and took a while to assert their dominance over Portugal in the semis (7-4) and Uruguay in the final (4-1), but the hosts were unquestionably head and shoulders above the rest at the second FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup.
"I know our supporters weren't necessarily very confident at the start of the tournament, but I expected only one thing: that the players I selected go out and show what they could do," commented Soares afterwards. "We were favourites but we had to prove we deserved that tag. My team did even more than that and I'm very proud of them. This title belongs to the squad, not to me."
Uruguay set defensive standard
Standing in their way in the final match were the revelations of the competition from Uruguay. Drawn with Cameroon, the Solomon Islands and Portugal in Group C, the Celeste fully expected to earn themselves a berth in the quarter-finals - but hardly dared dream of anything more. That was to underestimate their own tenacity, however, and after seeing off Argentina in a memorable encounter and surging past France on penalties in the semi-finals, Venancio Ramos's charges matched the Selecao for long stretches of the final.
"We were already really pleased to have made it to the last game," explained their proud trainer. "Then we achieved our next target by keeping them quiet in the first few minutes, but the more time went on the more we gave them space. The final result was fair, because Brazil are the best team in the world." The Charruas emerged with plenty of credit of their own, though, if not for their technical ability then for their astonishing defensive solidity.
Their epic journey to the final is even more impressive considering that the general standard of play was clearly higher this year than at Rio de Janeiro 2005. The local fans will long remember the courageous displays of Nigeria's young representatives, for example, who fell narrowly short of claiming a spot in the last eight. Likewise, Jacek Ziober's Poland, who finished third in this year's European qualifiers, struggled tooth-and-nail until the very last seconds of their extraordinary and crucial meeting with Japan.
In the same vein, the untried debutants from Cameroon and the Solomon Islands won over the crowds with their unquenchable desire to leave a good impression. Both managed to leave Rio with a win under their belts and have promised to return even stronger in 2007.
France and Portugal lead way in Europe
Two teams desperate to do the same are Italy and Spain, the tournament's most flagrant disappointments. Sent packing as early as the group stage to almost everyone's surprise, neither side can claim they deserved better given some lacklustre performances. They remain highly capable outfits, though, and the locals would have loved to see more from supremely gifted Spanish striker Amarelle, in particular. Instead, the European champions' captain left Brazil in tears, just as he did last year.
Enjoying considerably more success, Bahrain and Japan showed they are the discipline's Asian heavyweights. With talents like Abdulla Ismaeel Omar and Takeshi Kawaharazuka in their ranks, both can look forward to making even further strides at the global level, and their narrow quarter-final defeats to Portugal (2-6) and France (2-3) respectively spoke volumes for their potential.
For all the progress made by the so-called 'smaller' teams, however, they remain some way off the traditional powerhouses. Thus it was no great shock to see the French and Portuguese remind everyone of their ability by claiming third and fourth spot in that order. Indeed, for Les Bleus, the real upset was their failure to defend their title and it will take a long time for Eric Cantona and his men to recover from that setback. "We came here to finish top of the podium, not bottom," explained the former Manchester United star after seeing off the Lusitanians in the match for third place. "That's why, in spite of the pleasure I got from seeing my players show their character, I still feel an enormous disappointment. This squad deserved better."
For Portugal trainer Ze Miguel, meanwhile, the frustration was just as pronounced, if not more so. "We came here with the goal of winning all our games," he said. "Because of that I can't be happy with fourth place. My players can only blame themselves, however, as they just had to work a little bit harder. Right now, I'm not sure what I'll do. I'm going to go back to Portugal, spend some time by myself and decide if I want to carry on coaching this team or not." In contrast, youngsters Ricardo Loja, Gustavo and Andrezinho will no doubt return home with happier memories after making their first appearances on the global stage.
As far as individual players go, Rio de Janeiro 2006 offered further evidence that Portugal's Madjer is blessed with unrivalled ability. Winning the adidas Golden Shoe once again with a grand total of 21 goals, the Seleccao No. 7 lit up the competition with his natural class, and surely no one on the planet boasts the same combination of dexterity, efficiency and exemplary conduct. He is quite simply the greatest beach soccer exponent in the world today.
Unsurprisingly, world champions Brazil have a few talents of their own; not least adidas Silver Ball and Silver Shoe winner Benjamin, Buru, goalkeeper Mao and veteran campaigner Junior Negao. Together, they stood out as much for their sense of spectacle as for their committed pursuit of victory, and even the supporters who clamoured for Jorginho to be included were compensated by the elegant displays of lanky striker Bruno. With ten strikes to his name, the newcomer took home the adidas Bronze Ball and Bronze Shoe.
To pick out a few other star performers from a much longer list, France's Jeremy Basquaise, Polish marksman Boguslaw Saganowski (seven goals each), Canada's Sipho Sibyia and the Solomons' James Naka also left Rio to deserved ovations from the crowd.
Lastly, the fans can also give themselves a pat on the back for their continued and fervent support. Even on a weekday morning, all 10,000 places at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup stadium would be taken and, led by the exuberant Bola Siete, the torcedores ensured the action took place in a vibrant, carnival atmosphere. It is hard to believe, but the noise levels are sure to be even higher next year, when the hosts set out to defend their title. In fact, the only negative is that we all have to wait another 12 months!
Brazil, Poland, USA, Japan, Spain, France, Canada, Iran, Solomon Islands, Cameroon, Portugal, Uruguay, Italy, Bahrain, Nigeria, Argentina
Knocked out in quarter-finals: Argentina, Bahrain, Canada, Japan
Knocked out in first round: Cameroon, Spain, USA, Solomon Islands, Iran, Italy, Nigeria, Poland
286, or 8.94 per match
21 goals: Madjer (POR); 12 goals: Benjamín (BRA); 10 goals: Bruno (BRA)