Last four primed for final push
Forecasters may be predicting rain on Copacabana Beach this Saturday, but the quartet of teams jostling for a berth in the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2006 final are certain to provide plenty of sparkle.
With four games left to play before the tournament draws to a close, the order of business on 11 November will be deciding who contests the grand finale on Sunday and who will be left to scrap for third place. So much is at stake, and the spectators hoping to be warmed up by the action can expect two semi-finals with a Latin flavour, as southern Europe takes on South America in both ties.
France - Uruguay (9:30, local time)
Almost everyone backed Argentina to emerge triumphant from the Clasico Rioplatense in the previous round, but Uruguay blew those expectations out of the water by pulling off a last-minute upset (2-1). It was a comeback as stunning as it was courageous, and the reward for the Celeste is a semi-final clash against a France team that almost suffered the same fate as the Argentines by conceding two late goals to Japan (3-2). Though Eric Cantona's charges just about held on in that match and head into this one as favourites, they would do well not to underestimate the determination of their combative opponents.
In their defence, the world champions seem to have rediscovered their best form since arriving in Rio, and to a man they are focused on defending the trophy they lifted last year. But to make that dream a reality, they must first overcome Venancio Ramos's solid Uruguayans, a team that has tasted defeat just once so far. That came in the form of a narrow 5-4 loss to hot favourites Portugal, and although Pampero, Coco, Miguel and Co have already exceeded their targets, they will be eager to pursue their adventure even further.
Expectations are much higher in the French camp, of course, and the pressure on the players is at a similar level. As a result, no one is ready to settle for what has been achieved so far and the focus is on areas that can still be improved. "We need to work on a few things before our next game," admitted goalkeeper Jean-Marie Aubry after the Japan victory. "Even though our performances have been pretty good, we're still weak in certain domains."
Desperate to effect some last-minute corrections, Les Bleus braved the rainy conditions that have recently plagued Rio to train at 9.30 on Friday, exactly 24 hours before kick-off. Cantona put his players through their paces with various combinations and it will take a few of those to come off if his side are to find a way past the well-organised Charruas.
Brazil - Portugal (11:00)
This match would have perhaps made for the perfect final, and the crowds are sure to flock to Copacabana Beach to see which of these two great beach soccer nations can make it through to Sunday's showdown. The history books seem to point to a win for the hosts, with the Auriverde claiming success in 26 of 30 meetings. That said Portugal's most recent win against Brazil was at Rio de Janeiro 2005, when the Lusitanians picked up a memorable victory, also at the semi-final stage (6-6, 2-1PSO).
Memories of that encounter might give the Portuguese a psychological edge, but the Brazilians could easily say the same as they recall their 3-1 triumph over Ze Miguel's men in the far more recent Mundialito 2006. If one thing is certain, though, it is that Saturday's game will be an intense affair.
The showdown will also be the first real test for either team in this year's competition. Neither side has been unduly troubled on their way to the last four, with both topping relatively easy groups by winning all three games and racking up 29 strikes apiece in the 'goals for' column. As for the quarter-finals, Portugal turned to star striker Madjer to eliminate Bahrain (6-2), while Brazil breezed past the inexperienced Canadians (12-1).
Yet despite that scintillating display against Canada, the feeling on the streets of Rio de Janeiro is that Portugal are a notch above the rest of the field. Added to that, the Europeans are bent on breaking the cycle that has seen them finish runners-up in every single international beach soccer tournament in the last two years. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the hosts are making cautious noises ahead of the match, with veteran Junior Negao telling FIFA.com: "We're not interested in being entertaining anymore. I'd be more than happy if we win our next two matches 1-0." No doubt the Portuguese are thinking likewise.