“If someone had said to me that at the age of 43 that I’d be getting ready to play in a beach soccer World Cup qualifier, I’d have said they were crazy,” former Paraguay international Roberto Acuna said, in conversation with FIFA.com.
“When they called me up though, I had to say yes, just like I always did when the national side came calling. It always feels good to earn the chance to represent your country.”
An Albirroja star in years gone by, Acuna is now the captain of Paraguay’s beach soccer team, which is in Ecuador for the 2015 CONMEBOL Beach Soccer Championship. The tournament begins on Sunday, with South America’s finest vying for three places at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Portugal 2015.
The Argentinian-born midfielder, who goes by the nickname of El Toro (The Bull), was versatile performer in his 11-a-side days and an integral part of the golden Guaraní generation that contested three consecutive FIFA World Cup™ competitions: France 1998, Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006.
A veteran of four world finals qualification campaigns in all, Acuna, who also performed with distinction in the Spanish and Argentinian leagues, made a round 100 appearances for Paraguay and lies fifth on the country’s list of most-capped players.
Yet despite that vast experience, he admitted to nerves ahead of the latest in a long line of challenges that he has faced in his career.
“I haven’t played in a qualifier since 2006,” he said with a smile. “I had the same feeling in my first tournament with the beach soccer team, the Copa Sudamericana in Recife in January. On the walk from the dressing room to the pitch I got those butterflies that you always get when you pull this shirt on. And I’ll get them again in Ecuador.”
*A new challenge
*Acuna made the switch to the sand in 2014: “I’d just helped 12 de Octubre win promotion to the first division and I didn’t feel so keen about training and playing any more.
“At the time, my father-in-law was running the beach soccer team at the Paraguayan FA and he suggested I try it out. I said no at first and then I decided to give it a go. When I started playing for Garden Club it was just a hobby, but we won the competition and I liked it. I was hooked before I even realised and then came the call-up to the national team.”
As Acuna went on to explain, the demands of beach soccer forced a slight adjustment to his style of play: “It was a little while before I understood that the game’s played in the air. And there was me trying to play passes on the ground,” he said, bursting into laughter.
“Beach soccer has developed so much that it’s not enough just to have played on grass and then make the change to sand. It’s physically demanding and you also have to understand the game too. That’s where my experience came in.”
Acuna soon found his feet in a team that has been charting an upward trajectory since making its World Cup debut at Tahiti 2013. The Paraguayans went out at the group phase on that occasion, but not before giving both Japan and reigning two-time champions Russia a scare.
In Recife they again showed their ability to compete. With Acuna safely installed in the side, Paraguay topped the standings in the round-robin first phase, beating Brazil no less and also seeing off the likes of Bolivia and Chile, who will provide their group-phase opposition in the South American qualifiers along with Ecuador and Colombia.
Objectives in mind
Though Cayo Villalba’s team went on to lose heavily to the Brazilians in the Copa Sudamericana final, they served notice that they will be among the favourites to qualify for Portugal 2015.
Paraguay seem to have every chance of achieving that goal, having avoided both Brazil and Argentina – the only two sides above them in the South American rankings – in the draw for the group phase of the qualifiers, not to mention the vastly experienced Uruguay.
The top two sides in each section will advance to the semi-finals, with the finalists both qualifying for Portugal along with the third-placed team.
Contemplating the task ahead, Acuna said: “We know people are tipping us to go through, but we can’t think like that. Paraguay were the surprise package two years ago, beating Brazil and playing Argentina in the final of the qualifiers, but it could be another side this time.
“Our objective is still the World Cup though, and if we can qualify as champions, then so much the better. That’s what we have to aim for.”
One of Paraguay’s strengths is the unity of a team that contains several players young enough to be Acuna’s sons.
“We’re equals,” said the veteran when asked about his fresh-faced team-mates. “I’ve been just another player right from the very start and that’s how they treat me. I’ve earned my place here. If I’d felt that it was just because of my name, then I wouldn’t have stuck around.”
Happy to set an example to his country’s up-and-coming beach soccer talents and to be part of an exciting adventure, Acuna said: “I always try to pass on to others the things that I was taught, whether they’re team-mates or not. And if that helps encourage youngsters to play beach soccer, then that makes me even happier. I’m delighted that the sport has given me this fresh opportunity.”