After a first generation of such famous players as Stefano Tacconi and Alessandro Altobelli ignited interest for beach soccer in Italy in the early 1990's, the key for the Italians' success has always been centred more on grit and defensive prowess than on technique.
This is, in large part, how they won the Euro Beach Soccer League title in 2005 and qualified for last year's FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup. But the frustration of being thrashed in the group stages in Rio de Janeiro hurt the Azzurra so badly that they went for a complete overhaul of their squad and brought in a few new players and a new head coach in Giancarlo Magrini. It took a while, but it finally worked out, with great contributions from the likes of 23-year old striker Paolo Palmacci, who brought some much-needed firepower to the Italian arsenal and finished the season with a noteworthy tally of 19 goals.
They were the very last team to book their ticket to Rio de Janeiro, and whoever saw them at the start would not have thought they could go even that far: after kicking-off the Euro Beach Soccer League 2007 with a fourth-place finish at home, a pair of sub par results had the Italians struggling to qualify for Marseilles' Superfinal.
In the final league stage of Mallorca, in Spain, things started to take a U-turn and the newcomers began to feel more comfortable. Roberto Pasquali played like a superstar, and the Azzurra clinched their ticket to Marseilles thanks to a runner-up finish.
Although they were knocked out in the group stage in Marseilles, Italy kept showing the same poise as they had to fight their way through the Last Chance Bracket with wins over Hungary, Germany and Switzerland to ultimately deserve the second straight Brazilian stamp in their passports.
Former football head coach and a scout for such top-notch Italian clubs as Napoli, Internazionale, Torino and Parma, Giancarlo Magrini knew he was in for a tough task when he was given the job as head coach of one of the most traditional beach soccer nations in Europe. When he took over from former football and beach soccer striking idol Massimo Agostini, Magrini kept the backbone of veterans Maurizio Galli, Gianni Fruzzetti and Roberto Pasquali intact, but counted looking for talent to lead a true revolution.
The presence of youngsters such as Palmacci and Damiano Majorano and the reincorporation of Massimo Esposito eventually brought new life to the Azzurra and allowed them to conquer this season's major goal: to qualify for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup.
His cool surf-rock n' roll looks and a tireless ability to both attack and defend have always made him a fan favourite, but this year, surrounded by several new team-mates still struggling to figure out Italy's game plan, Roberto Pasquali took his game to another level and stepped up big time throughout the whole season, finishing third to Spaniard Amarelle and Swiss Stankovic in the Euro Beach Soccer League scoring charts with 23 goals. He was also the driving force behind the decisive Last Chance Bracket campaign, netting six goals in the last two matches - two in the 4-3 victory over Germany in the semi final and 4 in the critical 8-5 win over Switzerland in the final.
While their experiences in the early stages of the global showpiece were fair enough to attain a third-place medal in the 1996 Beach Soccer World Championships, the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup has proven a tougher stage for the Italians.
They even travelled to Brazil for the maiden edition, but were knocked-out in a qualifying tournament days before the competition started, when they lost the final European spot to Spain. Last year they finished fourth in the Euro Beach Soccer League and made it straight to the showdown, but three straight losses - to Argentina, Bahrain and Nigeria - brought cries of 'crisis'.
What they said...
"What really makes me proud about it all is to realise that we got better right when we needed to the most. Before the last stage in Mallorca no one would dare to say that we would even qualify for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup. Suddenly our veterans stepped up and new players like Palmacci picked up confidence. From then on we knew we could play head-to-head against just about anyone, and that's exactly how we will face Rio de Janeiro." - Giancarlo Magrini (head coach ITA).