Hosts ready to start the show
Matchday 1 of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Marseille 2008 could hardly be more enticing with Portugal and France, two of the leading contenders for the title, making their entrance in Groups A and B. The Portuguese should confirm their status as a global powerhouse against newcomers El Salvador, while the host nation will be just as confident of seeing off Senegal, appearing in the finals for the second year running. In Thursday's other games, which will all be shown live on FIFA.com TV, Italy and Uruguay will be banking on their big-match experience to ease past Solomon Islands and Iran respectively.
This repeat of one of last year's quarter-finals brings the first day of action at Marseille 2008 to an exciting close. And Les Bleus will have no option but to start off with a convincing performance if they are to satisfy what is sure to be a passionately enthusiastic home crowd. Boasting four players experiencing their first season of international duty, Eric Cantona's revamped outfit have serious designs on the title, and a reprise of last November's emphatic 6-3 win would represent the perfect start. The Senegalese are not short of belief, however, and can count on two high-class performers at either end of the pitch: goalkeeper Al Seyni Ndiaye, the finest player in his position in Africa, and striker and undisputed stand-out Pape Koukpaki.
The other games
While the first day's four match-ups may look easy to call, beach soccer has a tendency to throw up surprises. The tournament curtain-raiser between Italy and Solomon Islands is a case in point. The Europeans are renowned as slow starters, while the fact the Pacific islanders have absolutely nothing to lose makes them dangerous opponents. Following them on to the sand will be three-time finalists Iran, who will be keen to exert some pressure on a Uruguay side that finished third last year and runners-up in 2006. As for El Salvador, Thursday 17 July 2008 will be a proud day in their short beach soccer history as they take their bow in the finals against a star-studded Portugal side containing the likes of Madjer, Alan and Belchior. Quite an introduction for Miguel Rodriguez and his men.
Set to appear in his third FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup finals, the Bilikiki Boys keeper is hoping for a happier outcome this time around after experiencing first-round exits in 2006 and 2007. But no matter what happens against the fancied Italians, Hale will have at least one thing to celebrate on Thursday - his 29th birthday.
1.73m. The average height of the El Salvador team, the smallest in the tournament.
What they said
"The first match of a competition is a bit like the first attempt in a penalty shootout, in that it can often determine whether you have a successful tournament or not. Senegal are a great beach soccer team that made us work really hard for our win in the quarter-final last year. Getting the victory will be important for us to get our campaign off to a good start," France coach Eric Cantona.