It is a little after midday in Rio de Janeiro, which is another way of saying it is baking hot. The France team have just completed a training session and are trudging off towards the showers, visibly exhausted and grateful for the rest. Their coach Eric Cantona is not quite so desperate to switch off, however. After an hour spent handing out orders, repositioning players and praising their efforts, he is more than happy to answer a few questions for FIFA.com.
Wearing a blue shirt and a big smile, the former Manchester United star looks to be absolutely in his element. And so he might, as he embarks on his third FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup as mastermind of the French bid. His team were of course crowned champions in 2005 after beating Portugal in the final, but last year's semi-final defeat to Uruguay has left 'King Eric' with the feeling that there is some unfinished business to be attend to.
FIFA.com: With France kicking their campaign off on
Saturday, how do you intend to approach this third edition of the
FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup?
Eric Cantona: It's a magnificent competition, but a very difficult one, and we should know, having won it in 2005 before losing in the semi-finals the following year. The tournament just keeps getting tougher and tougher, so we'll have to be at 100 per cent at every moment. The favourites are naturally the same as ever, but countries like Russia, Argentina and Uruguay could spring a surprise and get themselves involved in the fight for the title.
France went into the competition as world champions last
year and failed to defend their trophy after struggling to qualify.
This time the qualifiers went by smoothly, so was 2006 just a case
of too much pressure?
Brazil were simply the best team last year. And Brazil were also a fair distance ahead of the rest the year before, even if it was us who managed to win the title. In 2006, we only lost out in a penalty shoot-out in the semis, so I don't think pressure played too big a role. That said, I love it when my team feels pressure. It's a necessary and positive thing, and having pressure means you're seen as one of the favourites. Pressure is what allows you to concentrate, to work hard, to not give up, to try to predict every little detail, to play as well as you can and, lastly, to enjoy yourself and not come away with regrets. After all, the ultimate goal remains having fun. But, of course, the hardest thing of all is finding that balance between having fun and getting results.
What lessons have you learned from the qualifiers and your preparations for this tournament?
We played very well this summer. Portugal may have won the final, but I think we were the best team in Europe. We've managed to improve our game too. Two years ago, we were happy enough waiting for the ball before starting moves, but we've made a lot of progress in physical terms since then. We can close opponents down and we don't give them any time to play. It's a new dimension to our game which can frustrate the more expansive teams, especially Brazil. And when Brazil are under pressure, they're just not the same side. Like the All Blacks in rugby, they're not used to other teams getting in their face, and when that happens they become a lot weaker.
Brazil go in as favourites, while, Portugal, Spain and
France are the best Europe has to offer. Do you think those teams
are a cut above the rest?
In every sport, there's a small list of teams that can hope to go all the way. Beach Soccer is no different, with Brazil, Portugal, Spain and France the serious pretenders to the title. But I'm also wary of Argentina and Uruguay, who have made huge progress and are very strong both mentally and physically.
Your opening game is against the United Arab Emirates. Are
you pleased to be starting against a team most people expect you to
It's a match that will be both very important and difficult. There's no question of taking them lightly: they're an opponent we take very seriously and one that'll give us a real test. Plus they have a skilful coach (Marcelo Mendes) who knows a lot about beach soccer. But we play every game to win, in the hope that we can go on to win the whole competition. We're fully capable and, if possible, we'd like to do it in style .
Your squad is fairly young, with a few older players also
included. What do both age groups bring to the table?
A young squad is indispensable in a sport that's becoming more and more physical. But those younger players need examples and leaders to follow. The more experienced players have to show true leadership, which means being the first to arrive at training, never letting your head drop and always encouraging your team-mates. Meanwhile, the younger players bring their passion and freshness. Passions have to be channelled, though, and once again the hardest thing is finding the right balance.
For a long time, your name was associated with Manchester
United. Nowadays, for many, the first thing that comes to mind is
beach soccer. Does that mean you have finally succeeded in raising
the game's profile?
Above all, I'm proud that beach soccer has been legitimised, with its own fans and its own stars. Our promotional efforts have paid off with the involvement of FIFA, the member associations and Beach Soccer World Wide. We worked hard and we worked well. A few years ago, spectators came to see former professionals putting on a show on sand. Now, they come to watch a sport they enjoy. They're no longer here to see Zico, Romario or Cantona: they're here to see Madjer, Amarelle, Jeremy Basquaise and Junior Negao. For me, that's the biggest breakthrough of all.