The seventh edition of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup promises to be a vibrant festival of sun, sand, acrobatics and jaw-dropping skill.
The global giants of beach football descend on the breathtaking French Polynesian island of Tahiti in September to compete for the biggest prize in the sport – the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2013.
Set among the precious coral reefs and volcanic rock of the southern Pacific Ocean, Tahiti will guarantee a spectacular backdrop to what promises to be a thrilling competition in a rapidly-growing global game.
With a Brazilian team in transition but desperate to regain their lost crown, Russia looking to defend their title and European champions Spain hitting a rich vein of form, the tournament is wide open and expected to deliver some of the most compelling battles seen on the sand so far.
The 16-team competition, which is being staged between 18 and 28 September, will break new ground as the first FIFA World Cup to be held in the Pacific Islands region and will feature two Oceania nations – hosts Tahiti and Solomon Islands.
After a phenomenal year for Tahitian footballers, with a warmly-received first appearance at the FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil already under their belts, there are growing expectations that the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup will propel the development of all aspects of football on the island into a bright future.
While the Tahitians will be hoping their team can put together a fairy-tale run past a tough group and into the knockout rounds, the pressure on past masters Brazil to go all the way and win back their title will be immense.
Brazil under pressure
Synonymous with the birth of the sport and its skilful, flamboyant style, Brazil have traditionally dominated beach soccer, taking home the trophy from four out of six FIFA Beach Soccer World Cups and winning an impressive 30 out of 35 matches in the process.
That grip on the beach crown came to a shock end in 2011, when a powerful and astute Russian side turned the form book on its head to overcome the Brazilians and win the their first World Cup in Ravenna, Italy. With a host of nations improving quickly and dreaming of lifting the trophy, the biggest question this year is whether Brazil can rediscover the magical touch which once made them almost unbeatable.
“We are confident and we want to get back the crown,” Brazilian representative Daniel Robles said at the draw for the group stages of the tournament.
Recent form suggests that the world’s number one-ranked team may not have it all their own way when the sand starts to fly in Papeete, French Polynesia’s bustling capital. The Reis da Praia failed to make the final of the CONMEBOL Beach Soccer World Cup qualification play-offs this year, losing out at the semi-final stage to Paraguay. Hosts Argentina then produced some golden play to grab their first title in a continent so used to only seeing Brazil’s name on the beach soccer winner’s board.
Brazil’s struggle to hold on to their top spot in world beach soccer has much to do with the growing global popularity and development of a game where individual turns of magic can change the course of a game in less than a second.
From its humble beginnings as a casual kick-about on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, beach soccer expanded swiftly through the 1990s with the creation of global tournaments and professional leagues. The involvement of famous 11-a-side footballers such as former France superstar Eric Cantona and Brazil’s Zico and Romario helped to give the sport the mass television appeal it enjoys today.
There is even talk that beach soccer could make a special guest appearance on the event roster at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio – the spiritual birthplace of the game. The dazzling sight of the nations of the world competing for gold, silver and bronze medals on Copacabana beach could certainly help to raise the sport’s profile to the next level.
Wide open field
Some of the world’s top sides have not qualified for Tahiti 2013, with Uruguay, Portugal and former winners France notable among a list of powerful absentees who will miss out on the action. The Netherlands and Paraguay are set to make their debut at the tournament, as new emerging talents come to the fore and hope to challenge the status quo.
Argentina are not the only team to have grabbed their first regional title in qualifying for Tahiti – the refreshing winds of change are being felt far and wide in the sport. Iran’s Team Melli, inspired by goal-hungry Moslem Mesigar, beat holders Japan to the Asian top spot this year. Iran are now hoping to transfer that form onto the global stage.
“We’ve competed at the World Cup on four previous occasions and never made it to the quarter-finals,” Mesigar said. “Our stumbling block has always been the first round. We have a lot to learn in this game but I reckon the time has arrived for us to make the experience we’ve accumulated count.”
This time around, Argentina, Russia and Spain will rank high among the tournament favourites alongside Brazil in a close competition that looks increasingly tough to call. Russia and Spain could even battle it out in the first all-European final since 2005, when France beat Portugal.
There will certainly be no absence of talent on show in Papeete, even if some of the world’s strongest teams failed to make the cut. Fans can expect an exhibition of bicycle kicks, incredible close control and gravity-defying volleys from the likes of Brazil’s Bruno Xavier and Andre, Argentina’s Luciano Franceschini and Russian Dmitry Shishin.
In a sport renowned for its goal-heavy and acrobatic games and unique challenges, USA’s Nick Perera and El Salvador’s Frank Velasquez are two technical maestros also likely to shine after some stunning performances in qualifying.
“Beach soccer is probably as technical as you can get,” said Perera. “You have the difficulty of the sand, so you can’t dribble. You need to juggle back and forth between the players, and you must have a comfortable first touch.”
As goals can fly in from any corner of the small beach soccer pitch, goalkeepers are just as important as goalscorers. African champions Senegal will look to the heroics of their in-form goalkeeper Al Seyni Ndiaye as they hope to improve on their quarter-final exit in 2011 while Ukraine’s captain and shot-stopper Vitalii Sydorenko is the inspiration for a talented side seen by some as the dark horses of the tournament.
For Tahiti, hosting the pinnacle of the beach soccer calendar is another crucial milestone both for the island and for its sports industry, according to Eddy Etaeta, the coach of Tahiti’s 11-a-side national team.
“I’m convinced the organisation of the Beach Soccer World Cup will have a general impact on the economy, tourism and sports of our country,” Etaeta said. “A wide variety of activities, such as coaching and referee seminars as well as football courses at schools, will be implemented in the coming months, thus multiplying the benefits of the event.”