Sun and sweat in Acapulco
Known for its stunning white sand beaches and tourist hot-spot status, Acapulco, on Mexico's south-western Pacific coast, is gearing up for a bit of world-class Beach Soccer action from 9 to 11 August as CONCACAF (North, Central America and the Caribbean) and CONMEBOL (South America) contest their final qualifying competitions for the third FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in Rio this November.
The sight of a football bouncing around on Acapulco's brilliant beaches is no rarity, but for these three days in August the sun-soaked stretch of sand at the Fairmont Acapulco Princess Hotel will be transformed into a sweat-stained battleground, with four places at Rio 2007 (two for CONCACAF and two for CONMEBOL) on offer. Relaxation, sunbathing and cocktails will be replaced by tension, desire and tight competition.
"Acapulco is simply the perfect spot for beach soccer to make its name in such a football-loving country as Mexico," said Guillermo Cantu, General Director of Mexico's National Teams told reporters at a recent press conference. "The Mexican FA fully supports the beach soccer national team and hopes they will do well in their coming trials."
Seven teams from the two confederations will take part in the festivities, with a specialised Beach Soccer stadium constructed in the sand at the hotel.
On the South American side of the proceedings are Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela. With two spots up for grabs and the possibility of joining up with neighbours, hosts and defending world champions Brazil, the competition is bound to be fierce. Argentina and Uruguay will be the favourites - as both qualified for last year's Beach Soccer bonanza in Rio and famously met in a contentious and occasionally chaotic contest at those finals.
Uruguay will have the edge in Acapulco, at least psychologically, as they won that quarter-final and marched on to the Final of Rio 2006, where they eventually lost out to Brazil. The Argentines will be counting on old veteran captain Ezequiel Hilaire in an attempt to restore their status on the continental scene and get one over on their Uruguayan neighbours and rivals.
On the CONCACAF side of things, the USA, Costa Rica, hosts Mexico and first-time participants El Salvador will tangle for two tickets to Rio. The US, who took part in both previous Beach Soccer world finals, will be the team to beat led by the outstanding Francis Farberoff, who was named player of the tournament at the 2006 CONCACAF qualifiers in Costa Rica, and wily boss Roberto Ceciliano. Hosts Mexico could also be a dangerous side, hoping to take advantage of familiar sand to reach their first FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup.
After struggling early in their development using predominantly 11-a-side footballers, the Mexican federation changed its policy and opted to scour the coasts of the country for beach specialists in 2006. The outcome of that change in thinking will be on display in the coming days. Despite not having won anything of note, Costa Rica, too, have a good tradition in the discipline and El Salvador, as debutants, will be hoping to make a mark and earn some valuable experience.
Both competitions will be played in a round-robin format from 9 to 11 August. Once the two qualified nations from each confederation are known, the teams will then play-off with teams from the neighbouring zone to determine the final rankings - an important factor in the Official Draw for the Rio finals.
The fortunate four from Acapulco will join up with already qualified Nigeria, Senegal (Africa) and the Solomon Islands - the lone Oceania Representatives at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup this November.
The 16-team line-up for Rio will be rounded out with three Asian countries that will secure their places in Dubai (14-18 August) and the top five European nations from the Marseilles qualifiers (21-26 August).
Sunday 12 August
Match between third of each group (Play-off 5th / 6th)
Match between second of each group (Play-off 3rd / 4th)
Match between winner of each group (Final)