Everyone who is anyone in European beach soccer was in Marseilles to witness the culmination of a thrilling 2005 season. On the beautiful Prado beach, the final balls were kicked, the last matches won and the ultimate prize awarded, and in this year of the first FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, the tournament on France's Mediterranean coast provided further evidence of just how competitive the discipline has now become.
While there were no surprise teams among the European League's top five finishers, none of the elite had things their own way. Leading the continental ranking after the first four tournament (at Tignes in France, Figueira de Foz in Portugal, Cervia in Italy and Majorca in Spain), Portugal benefited from a first round bye, affording the Lusitanians a chance to sit back and watch their rivals struggle to impose their credentials.
Switzerland (via a single-goal margin over Spain), Italy (by the odd goal against Germany) and France (on penalties against Hungary) all recorded narrow wins on the first day of competition, and with such close results, the semi-finals promised to be exciting affairs.
So it proved. The tie of the tournament was surely the sumptuous duel between world champions France and stylish Portugal, recent finalists at the Mundialito. At last showing signs of recapturing the superb form they showed at Rio de Janeiro 2005, Les Bleus ran the Seleçao ragged for long periods before conceding a pair of extraordinary goals - one scored by star player Madjer direct from a corner.
Faced with a two-goal deficit (4-2), Eric Cantona and Co. were unable to draw level, mainly due to the exploits of the impressive Bruno in the Portuguese goal. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Iberian stopper really is the best on the planet in his position.
Portugal: always the bridesmaid, never the bride
In the other semi-final, the Italians and Swiss got embroiled in real topsy-turvy battle, as the lead alternated between the two teams throughout the three periods. Having again cut the deficit to a single goal through their captain Angelo Schirinzi (4-3) with two minutes left on the clock, Swiss resistance was finally quashed a few minutes later by a Massimo Agostini clincher. For the first time in their history, the Squadra Azzurra were through to the European League Superfinal.
Now, just one more hurdle separated the Italians from beach soccer history, and Portugal from the chance to gain some reward for a tremendous 2005 season. Clearly bent on wiping out the memory of their two final defeats this year (at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup against France and the Mundialito to Brazil), Portugal quickly took control courtesy of a double from their captain Hernani. Despite an Italian goal scored by Roberto Pasquali, the Seleçao had the luxury of beginning the second half with a comfortable 5-1 lead. But then came an unthinkable collapse, as the Portuguese conceded four goals that forced them to face extra time.
Totally stunned, Zé Miguel's charges were clinging on now, but the five additional minutes produced no further goals. Then, in the penalty shootout, Gianni Fruzzetti cancelled out Alan's successful strike, only for Madjer - second top scorer in the European League behind Amarelle of Spain - to make a hash of his attempt. That was the cue for rejoicing among the Azzurri, who could now celebrate having won their first-ever beach soccer trophy.
As for the Portuguese, they departed Marseilles with a bitter sensation of underachievement. Finalists at all the season's major events, they have nothing but a trio of runners-up medals to show for their efforts. Nevertheless, few would argue that they have been the most impressive team of 2005. As for Hungary, Germany and Austria, their stock is undoubtedly rising. That augurs well for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2006, where Europe will have five representatives. Let the battle commence!
Switzerland 8 Austria 7
Switzerland 4 Spain 3
Italy 6 Germany 4
France 5 Hungary 5 (2-1 on pens.)
Portugal 4 France 2
Italy 5 Switzerland 3
Hungary 6 Austria 1
Spain 7 Germany 4
Germany 6 Austria 2
Spain 7 Hungary 5
France 6 Switzerland 2
Italy 5 Portugal 5 (2-1 on pens.)
1 -. Italy
2 -. Portugal
3 -. France
4 -. Switzerland
5 -. Spain
6 -. Hungary
7 -. Germany
8 -. Austria