The FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Rio de Janeiro 2007 is about to enter its decisive stage. Only eight of the 16 contenders now remain, and one of the most interesting of Thursday's quarter-final match-ups is the all-Spanish-speaking affair between perennial favourites Spain and tournament outsiders Mexico.
To set the scene for what promises to be a fascinating showdown, FIFA.com sought out the opinions of their deadly front men, the much-admired 29-year-old Spanish sharpshooter Amarelle and his opposite number Ricardo Villalobos, three years his junior and the driving force behind Mexico's unexpected run in Rio.
Pausing for thought
Despite a hectic tournament schedule, the goalgetters managed to catch their breath and look back on their achievements in the group phase. "We exceeded our expectations because our last two World Cup appearances were disappointing," says the Spaniard, his side's leading scorer with four goals. "Thankfully we got the wins we needed to qualify for the next round. What's more, half the team have also played their first official match here and have done well. I'm very happy with how things are going."
That is a feeling shared by the Mexican, who has found the back of the net in each of the Aztecas' three games. "Naturally we are delighted. This is our first World Cup and we're in the quarter-finals after getting through a group containing Russia and Brazil. That's been down to our preparation and motivation. I can't say I'm surprised, though. We knew we had to really apply ourselves. We've done that and the results are there for all to see."
Apart from being members of the beach soccer strikers' union, Amarelle and Villalobos both started their careers in the 11-a-side game, the man from La Coruña wearing the colours of hometown club Deportivo, while the Mexican No 9 had spells with Pachuca, Cruz Azul and his beloved America before switching to the sand in 2005.
The Barcelona-supporting Amarelle made the move back in 1997, which makes him well qualified to compare the standards between this tournament and its two predecessors. "Things have evened out a lot, for sure. It was stagnating a bit, with the same teams taking part and the same results. But Mexico, Russia and the African teams have shown they can make up for their lack of experience with the right preparation, hard work and desire, and that they can beat anyone."
For both players, the increased competitiveness of the sport has more to do with improved teamwork than the emergence of brilliant individuals. "It's all about players who get the job done rather than star figures and there are plenty of teams around whose success is more to do with teamwork than superstars," explains Villalobos. "We are an example of that."
The hour of truth
There is more to Mexico's rise to prominence than mere organisation, though, as the Spanish ace acknowledges. "Mexico have a lot of strong points. They're a fit side with a lot of technical and tactical qualities, but above all they're motivated. They're a young team who are keen to achieve something big." Villalobos is quick to repay the compliment. "Spain have got plenty of experienced players who've seen it all, and experience is what we were lacking when we lost to Brazil. They deserve our respect but we won't be standing off against them."
"The game will be decided by set-plays like free kicks and corners," predicts Amarelle before venturing a bold prediction. "I think Spain will edge it 5-4, which would be a fair reflection on what we've seen in the tournament so far." For once, though, the smiling Villalobos disagrees with his fellow interviewee, perhaps not surprisingly. "We're very confident and we're going to go for it. I agree that there'll be one goal in it, but in our favour."
And with that the two opponents posed for a photo, sportingly shook hands and wished each other well for the duel ahead. Will Amarelle prevail or will Villalobos shoot the men in green to victory? All will be revealed on Thursday.