Alonso driving Spain forward
When former Barcelona midfielder Francisco 'Lobo' Carrasco invited him to a game on the beach in Alicante back in 1996, Joaquin Alonso had little idea the match would mark the start of a career that would lead all the way to the job of Spain coach.
Having represented his country at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Moscow 1980 and the 1982 FIFA World Cup Spain™, the ex-Sporting Gijon player was no stranger to the international scene. But after calling time on his professional career, Alonso could have been forgiven for thinking that his days in the limelight were well and truly over, and that his only remaining link to the game would be the kickabouts he enjoyed with his friends on the beaches of his home town on Spain's northern coast.
With the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Marseille 2008 just days away, though, the 52-year-old finds himself preparing to lead his team into the biggest competition in the discipline for the fourth time running. "Our aim is to get through the first phase, preferably as group winners," Alonso tells FIFA.com.
"Then we'll just have to wait and see who we come up against. The other group contains Argentina, who are always favourites, and Russia, who were a revelation last season and have proved that was no fluke this year. Whoever we face it won't be easy."
Five times European champions (1999, 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2006), La Roja have nevertheless found success elusive on the global stage. An ever-present in the world finals, the Spanish went out in the first round in 2006 and exited at the quarter-finals stage in 2005 and 2007, succumbing to France and Mexico respectively. As fate would have it, the Aztecas, last year's runners-up, are among their opponents in Group D, a testing section that also pits them against Japan and reigning champions Brazil.
"Brazil are the kings of beach soccer," he acknowledged. "They are the team to beat, the toughest side there is. Their players are exceptionally talented because beach soccer has a longer tradition there."
"Mexico were the surprise side last year," added Alonso, who has studied his group rivals in depth. "They are an awkward, tough outfit with a style all of their own. We lost to them in the quarters because we failed to stay calm at key points and couldn't find a response to their physical marking game, which pushes the rules to the limit.
The Mexicans are always very focused. As for the Japanese we shouldn't be underestimating them because they are extremely disciplined. They play a very direct game but they keep going and going, they work really hard and they're mobile. They won't be easy to beat either."
Despite the challenges posed by a daunting group, Alonso is optimistic his side can continue to chart an upward curve. "If we're going to succeed, we need to stick to what we've been doing," he says confidently. ". I'm lucky I can count on some excellent professionals, players of an extremely high standard and, of course, I've also got one of the best players in the world in Ramiro Amarelle.
"What really matters, though, is the team. I'm extremely confident and we're really hoping we can build on the progress we made at Benidorm by putting in a good performance in Marseille. I'm delighted with the work we've been doing. Obviously the tournament will tell us how good we are but I'm sure we can do well."
And with Spain enjoying a golden summer of success, Alonso has even more reasons to be optimistic ahead of their Marseille mission. "We've broken a few curses already this year: Spain won the European Championships at last and Rafa Nadal finally triumphed at Wimbledon. Now it's our turn."
It was eight years ago that the one-time midfielder realised beach soccer was the sport for him, and his enthusiasm at playing a part in the sport's continuing growth remains undimmed. "Beach soccer did what all new sports do by drawing on veteran players like Michel, Emilio Butragueno and Julio Salinas," explained the coach.
"That was the best way for it to start. But I remember a 19-year-old called Amarelle turning up for an exhibition match back in 1997 and putting a lot of goals past us. We just had to bring him into the side and we've been training players ever since. The progress they've made in the last few years is all down to their drive, commitment and quality. They've given the sport an identity all of its own. They are the ones who have made the difference and set beach soccer on the right road."
The growing popularity of the game has helped make Alonso's job easier. Every summer he stakes out the many amateur championships held on Spain's busy beaches, hoping to uncover new talents for the future. And while the country's beach soccer infrastructure is still limited, particularly during the winter months, things are improving, with Alonso and his men taking whatever opportunities they can to get together.
"As well as bringing through good players the key is continuity," he says. "There's an increasing commitment to the sport from all areas and we're now seeing public bodies offer their support."
A passionate believer in this still-young discipline, Alonso is quick to preach its virtues to the uninitiated. "You just have to see a game live," he says with conviction. "It's such a dynamic sport and the score is always changing. You never know who is going to win until right to the end and there's so much going on. It's a sport with a tremendous future."