Beating Brazil on their own sand would appear to have become something of a mission impossible. The 15 contenders who jetted in for the third edition of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup eventually resigned themselves to watching the hosts march inexorably towards their second consecutive global title. With the exceptional Buru lighting the way and skilled lieutenants Bruno, Sidney, Benjamin and Andre backing him up, Brazil comfortably met the objective they always set themselves before any tournament: to lift the trophy.
But while the hot favourites did not disappoint, much-vaunted European contenders Spain, Portugal and France all failed to join them in the final. Instead, it was Mexico who won their way through to the showpiece game, and the competition newcomers surprised everyone by ending their Brazilian stay as runners-up. Russia, Spain and last year's beaten finalists Uruguay all fell by the wayside in a run few could have anticipated less than two years after the Tricolores lost 23-3 to Brazil.
Their victims from Uruguay had to settle with third place after contesting the final in 2006, but it meant another medal for the South Americans. The Celeste ultimately saw off France to clinch bronze, bringing an end to a disappointing tournament for Les Bleus. Despite reaching the last four, Eric Cantona's men never truly got going, and the same could be said of Spain and Portugal, who were both too inconsistent to challenge for semi-final berths.
Balance of power
Brazil's domination aside, the reigning impression from this FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup was of raised standards. Mexico have clearly taken giant strides, however the best examples of all came from Africa, where Nigeria and Senegal not only qualified from their groups but did so by finishing top. Competing in only their second global showcase, the Beach Eagles enjoyed victories over Argentina, United Arab Emirates and France, while Senegal celebrated their first appearance by seeing off Uruguay, Italy and Japan. Even though their dreams were ended at the quarter-final stage, both teams picked up valuable experience which will serve them well in the years to come.
Progress was evident from Iran and UAE too. Team Melli took the Portuguese to a penalty shoot-out and racked up a prestigious win over Spain, and UAE gave the French a real scare on their competition debut. Unfortunately, Japan and the Solomon Islands looked a long way off the pace, but with young teams and an adventurous spirit they are sure to bounce back in the future.
Billed as dark horses in the run-up, Russia struggled with the pressure as they made their tournament introduction. They began with a loss to eventual finalists Mexico, and it was only against the Solomon Islands and above all against Brazil that they began to show their true selves. With Andriy Bukhlistskiy displaying magnificent reflexes in goal and captain Ilya Leonov finding the target with unerring accuracy, the Eastern Europeans came close to turning their situation around before bowing out on penalties.
Old faces and new
On the individual front, Brazil's Buru was the standout performer for the duration of the competition. He almost met his match in the quarter-finals, though, as Madjer fired in five of Portugal's seven goals and threw in some extraordinary glimpses of skill for good measure. Spain's Amarelle also showed why he is one of the best players on the planet before he and his team left Rio far sooner than expected. The solid performances of Uruguayan goalkeeper Diego will have surprised few either, and he continued to be as important a presence in the changing-room as he is between the sticks.
While those players all confirmed their talent, Rio de Janeiro 2007 introduced some new names to the world as well. Mexico's Morgan Plata was a particularly exciting find and he ended the competition with the adidas Silver Shoe and Bronze Ball, not to mention a place in the final itself. Likewise, Senegal's talismanic goal-scorer Pape Koukpaki made a huge impression and his absence from the quarter-final with France cost his side dear. Nigerian goalkeeper Abdullahi Isa was another to win plenty of plaudits, and he needed to shine to see the Africans through a tough group that also featured France and Argentina. Lastly, Mexico had an influential custodian of their own in Miguel Estrada, whose thrilling displays were all the more surprising given that he only discovered beach soccer in July this year.
Goodbye Rio, hello Marseille
Having lit up the stands over the previous ten days, the locals cheered loudly when captain Junior Negao lifted the trophy, no doubt conscious they were also bidding farewell to the competition - for the next few years, at least.
After three years of organising the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, hosting duties will be held by Marseille in 2008 and Dubai in 2009. But as fanatics of the game on sand, Brazil's supporters will not need to think twice before travelling to spur their heroes on around the world.
So, adeus Rio and bonjour Marseille!
FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Rio de Janeiro 2007
Goals: 261 (8.16 per match)
Spectators: 157,300 (an average of 4,916)
1. Buru (BRA) - 10 goals
2. Morgan Plata (MEX) - 9 goals
3. Bruno (BRA) - 8 goals