Conditions were far from perfect at the summer stadium on Marseille's Prado beach as the Euro Beach Soccer League 2006 reached its conclusion on Sunday. The buffeting Mistral blowing in from the north made ball control difficult for the players but failed, nonetheless, to dampen the enthusiasm of a partisan crowd that had gathered to cheer on Eric Cantona's side.
At stake for the hosts and reigning world champions was a berth at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2006 in Rio de Janeiro. Blocking their path in the final of the last chance bracket was a Swiss side that had surprised everyone with their fine form during the week.
With Jean-Pierre Escalettes, the president of French Football Federation, watching from the stands, Cantona's charges made an electrifying start to the game, and within seconds of the whistle Noel Sciortino saw his header pushed onto the crossbar by Swiss keeper Nico. Yet, just as they did in Saturday's semi-final against Ukraine, the Swiss opened the scoring against the run of play with their very first chance.
Stung by the audacity of the underdogs, the French swarmed forward and promptly turned the game around, despite the best efforts of the hard-pressed Nico. Even so, the 2-1 lead they had established by the end of the first third hardly reflected their complete dominance of proceedings.
The next 12 minutes saw more of the same as the French - undoubtedly still one of the best beach soccer teams in the world when they put their minds to it - built up a 4-1 lead going into the final third.
Solid in defence and inspired up front, Jean-Marc Edouard and his cohorts were not about to let an unadventurous Swiss side back into the game and added another to their tally to run out comprehensive 5-1 winners and, more importantly, secure a trip to Rio following a largely lacklustre season in the European League.
"We were bitterly disappointed to miss out on the semi-finals in front of our own fans here," lamented coach Cantona. "Our only goal here was to become European champions, but we're happy to have qualified for Brazil all the same. We've gradually got stronger as the week's gone on and we were on top form today. I'm very proud of the boys."
Spain outclass Portugal
France's win was preceded by a thrilling third-place play-off game between Poland and Italy that marked the return to action of former-Azzurri-star-turned-coach, Massimo Agostini. True to Agostini's philosophy, the match was an entertaining, end-to-end affair with players on both sides attempting spectacular, acrobatic volleys from all angles. After the game had ended 2-2 in normal time, it was the Poles who prevailed on penalties to take third spot.
The day's big game saw Spain take the European title following a high-quality final against Portugal. Despite a brace from Madjer, the Portuguese never looked like upsetting their well-drilled neighbours, and Amarelle and Nico bagged braces of their own to see the Spanish home. Following their success on the shores of the Mediterranean, Joaquin Alonso's high achievers will head to Rio as favourites to take the world crown.
Superfinal - Finals
3rd place: Poland 2 Italy 2 (Poland won 2-1 on penalties)
Spain 4 Portugal 2
Last chance bracket - Final
Switzerland 1 France 5
*France qualify for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2006.