Iconic beach the ideal stage
There is never a dull moment in Copacabana.
Day or night, the few kilometres of white sand
lining the south east of Rio de Janeiro appear to be nothing less
than the city's beating heart. The signs of life are
vivid, colourful and all around, but as November gets underway the
world's most famous beach is even more animated than usual.
The reason? The very best beach soccer players on the planet are in town, and there they will stay until one team has lifted the most prestigious trophy in the sport.
From tomorrow onwards, the relaxed atmosphere will give way to intense competition, global ambition, dazzling play and tactical nuances. But between now and then, players and supporters alike still have a few hours left to make the most of what Rio has to offer. And the least one can say is that Brazil's second-largest city has everything it takes to turn this competition into a fantastic celebration of football.
It helps too that the whole country is on a high after being awarded the 2014 FIFA World Cup™. That put football at the top of the agenda and the Seleção aim to keep it there by defending the global title they won last year. They and their rivals can not wait to get started, and when you add in 30-degree heat, blazing sunshine and waves lapping at the shore from the Atlantic Ocean, you have the perfect backdrop for an unforgettable tournament.
As the venue for all the drama and intrigue over the next two weeks, the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup stadium deserves a mention as well. Standing proudly in the centre of the beach, this magnificent structure is one of Rio's many wondrous attractions and it has been drawing as many looks from curious passers-by as it has from devotees of the discipline. All the participating teams have had a chance to train there and while sides like Brazil, Spain, France and Portugal seemed to be almost at home in this their third visit, the newcomers from Senegal and the United Arab Emirates could hardly believe their eyes as they stepped out into the middle.
The fans will have to wait for the curtain-raiser between Russia and Mexico to explore the stadium themselves, but they have at least been able to glimpse the protagonists up close. The term 'behind closed doors' has no meaning in this corner of the world and the training area for all the teams is located on the beach near the stadium, meaning it is open to the public. As a result, the locals have gathered in numbers to watch the competition hopefuls go through their paces. Always discrete and careful not to interfere, they have seen Eric Cantona give his France team orders at the crack of dawn, the Iranians practice their shooting in the late afternoon and the Mexicans stretch their limbs at dusk.
With temperatures so high, coaches have identified dawn and dusk as the best times to prepare their charges. The Russians, in particular, are not used to such heat at this time of year and their trainer Nikolai Pisarev seems to fear the climate as much as his team's first round opponents Mexico, Brazil and Solomon Islands.
"Our squad was only put together three years ago and we generally only play in the summer, which is very short in Russia," he explained after a training session. "I hope we'll be able to rise to the challenge beneath the hot South American sun, as it represents a frightening opponent that we need to confront."
Whatever threat the other teams pose, Pisarev and his men will need to adapt to the conditions quickly. Otherwise, they will be swapping Brazilian sunshine for November in Russia a little earlier than desired.
Of course, the 15 other challengers want to avoid an early exit as well, and they may well find themselves hoping Christ the Redeemer smiles on their fortunes from on top of Corcovado mountain.The iconic statue high above the city will be a familiar sight to the hosts, but this is the last time they will be able to draw inspiration from it. After 13 consecutive years on Brazilian soil, including three under FIFA's auspices, the contest for the right to be called beach soccer world champions will be held in Marseille in 2008.
If they harbour concerns about leaving home comforts behind, however, the Brazilians need not worry. The French city captures the Brazilian feel probably better than any other place in Europe, with its spectacular beaches, year-long party atmosphere and the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde basilica overlooking proceedings from on high. The Seleção are unlikely to be struck down by home-sickness then, but whether they will travel to Marseille as defending champions remains to be seen.