European elite takes shape
The weather may be unusually wet for this time of year in northern Europe, but temperatures soared to the 35°C mark in Athens, Greece, last weekend as the European Beach Soccer League (EBSL) kicked off in sweltering conditions.
In the same splendid arena that hosted beach volleyball matches at the 2004 Olympic Games, 12 sides played off for the last four places in Europe's Group A - and, for the most part, the favourites came out on top.
Switzerland caught the eye in particular and made short work of Norway (10-2) and Turkey (11-3) in Pool A. Led by player-coach Angelo Schirinzi, back in action after a season marred by injury, the Swiss looked to star strikers Stephan Leu, Dejan Stankovic and Stephan Meier to make the difference and showed everyone they will be a force to be reckoned with this term. "The important thing was not just to qualify, but to do it in style," explained Schirinzi afterwards. "We beat both our opponents by a fairly big score and I think that proves we're on the right track."
As for Russia - winners of the Euro Beach Soccer Cup in 2005 - life was barely more difficult in Pool B and only a 7-6 extra-time victory against a rapidly-improving Israel side denied Nikolay Pisarev's men the chance to take all six points from their two games. Hosts Greece finished bottom of the section, meanwhile, following their 2-1 loss to Israel and a 5-1 defeat at the hands of Russia.
In fact, the only shock cropped up in Pool C, where the Czech Republic registered comfortable wins over their two rivals. The 4-3 success over Germany may have surprised no-one, but many observers were left speechless by their 4-3 win against Ukraine, a team used to competing in the continental elite over the past two years and impressive quarter-finalists at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2005. Ukraine will now spend the season in Group B and must pin their hopes on the 'Last Chance' Bracket to gain a ticket to Rio de Janeiro. No such fate for their conquerors, of course, and it will be fascinating to see how the Czechs fare in Group A. They will surely be mindful of Poland's achievements last year, when Jacek Ziober's charges brilliantly booked themselves a berth at Rio de Janeiro 2006 just a few weeks after taking their place at Europe's top table.
This time around, Poland were given a real scare in pool D. On Saturday, talented striker Sagan and his colleagues raced to 4 -1 second-period lead over Hungary, but they failed to hold on to that advantage and eventually lost on penalties. With their backs to the wall, the Poles then made up for that setback by registering a 6-3 victory over a brave England side. The English kicked off their own campaign with a 5-1 win over the Hungarians, but a better head-to-head goal difference meant that the Poles, the third-placed team in last year's EBSL, finished top.
As a result, France, Italy, Portugal and European champions Spain now know who they will be taking on this season. Athens showed that the four newly-qualified sides boast a level of play approaching the best on the continent, meaning the season ahead ought to be a tight affair - with the first instalment now just two weeks away in Italy.
Group A Euro Beach Soccer League tournaments
San Benedetto del Tronto (Italy), 13-15 July
Portimao (Portugal), 19-21 July
Tignes (France), 27-29 July
Mallorca (Spain), 3-5 August
The top six teams in the overall ranking of the four events qualify for the EBSL Superfinal. The other two enter the 'Last Chance' Bracket with the sides from Group B.
EBSL Superfinal / FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2007
Marseille (France), 21-26 August
The Superfinal semi-finalists and the winner of the 'Last Chance' Bracket qualify for Rio de Janeiro 2007.