All eight teams participating at the African qualifiers that are taking place in El Jadida in Morocco from 22-26 May have the same goal: to reach the final match and grab one of two tickets for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup later this year in Tahiti.
The tournament draw, which happened the day before the tournament began, saw Senegal, who won the tournament two years ago, drawn into Group A against hosts Morocco, Madagascar and rookies Ghana. Group B will consist of Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt and Libya. Favourites to reach the semi-finals at least are Senegal and Nigeria, who are the only African countries to escape the group phase at a Beach Soccer World Cup finals with both managing the feat in 2007 as well as 2011. Madagascar, who finished fourth at the last qualifiers in 2011, are expected to be a tough challenger, while ambitious Morocco, who are hosting the qualifiers for the second time in a row, are hoping to become the first North African team to qualify for the finals but will need to improve on their previous performances, having finished fifth in 2011 and 2009 and last in 2006.
Senegalese captain Ngalla Sylla, who is one of four players in the squad who played in the 2011 World Cup finals, said that the team's goal was clear. "We want to win this tournament, or at least be a finalist, so that we can qualify for Tahiti,” he said, while his coach Amadou Diop admitted that even though preparations had been hampered by disbanding of the team after several players had sought asylum outside the country, they were confident of doing well. "The team has seen a lot of changes with young players being introduced, but we can still do well."
Ghana, meanwhile, are hoping for a spectacular entrée into continental action - just six years after the country first formed a beach soccer team. Under the guidance of interim coach Maxwell Kpeglo, the team has prepared for the tournament in Morocco. ''We are venturing into the unknown, but to me that is a positive challenge and the players all agree that this is their time to make their country proud and also make a name for themselves,'' Kpeglo said.
Supersand Eagles confident
Nigeria's Supersand Eagles, are hoping to continue their run, which has seen them represent the continent in four of the five World Cup finals for which qualifiers were held. They have twice won the tournament and twice finished runners-up. They start their campaign against Libya, and Abu Azeez, who top-scored at the COPA Lagos Beach tournament last year, said that they are excited about the competition’s start. "The team knows what is at stake, and we are going to make sure we do our best to make the nation proud, by not only qualifying but we also have in mind doing well at the world championship in Tahiti."
Coach Audu Ejo Adamu has several African beach soccer stars in his squad, like captain Isiaka Olawale, Ogbonnaya Okemmiri and Victor Tale, who was top scorer for the team at the last World Cup finals. Former Nigerian international Taribo West, who watched the team during preparations, predicted that the side can do well. "I expect them to win and qualify,” he said. “They have an incredible team, and I believe their handlers know what to do to keep them at the top. If they maintain their form from what I saw at the COPA Lagos, I think they will be unbeatable. They are incredibly good."
2009 runners-up Côte d'Ivoire and Egypt, who have made it to the semi-finals at the last three editions but failed to qualify for the championship match, should be Nigeria's main challengers. Libya, who finished seventh and eighth at their two previous appearances, are looking for a better classification this time around.
The group phase of the competition sees the groups compete on a round-robin basis with the top two teams advancing to the semi-finals. The two winners of those matches will then qualify for the finals in Tahiti.