- Belarus have qualified for FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup for first time
- The surprise packages are coached by Spaniard Nicolas Alvarado
- Alvarado: "We're not scared of the big teams"
One man who was not taken aback by their landmark success, however, was their coach Nicolas Alvarado.
“We knew it would be tough but we went there believing it was possible,” said Nico, as he is known on the circuit, in conversation with FIFA.com. “There’s always one team that causes an upset at these tournaments. Why couldn’t it be us?”
Belarus finished third behind Russia and Italy, but ahead of Switzerland and Portugal. They faced three of those four powerhouses of the game, who have 25 World Cup appearances between them, and won every time.
“Beating Switzerland in the group phase was crucial because we’d lacked intensity in our previous match, against Lithuania,” said the 43-year-old Spaniard. “That’s when we showed we were in with a real chance.”
In the second group phase, the Belarusians beat reigning world champions Portugal and Italy, who finished fourth at the last two World Cups. In doing so, the eastern Europeans secured their place at the upcoming world finals.
“The high point for the team was the win against Italy,” said Nico. “We were losing, we scored a last-gasp equaliser, we were a man down in extra time, and we won on penalties.”
“Qualifying is important for us, no question, but it’s also important to be right up there with the big teams. We’re not scared of facing them anymore. That’s going to be vital at the World Cup."
Making an impact
Nico ended his playing days in 2015, having appeared at seven world finals with Spain and played 26 games at those competitions, both national records. He is also La Roja’s second-highest World Cup scorer with 18 goals, behind Amarelle, who amassed 27.
It was Amarelle who was his link to the Belarus Football Association. “You think there’s nothing harder than playing, but that changes when you’re on this side of the touchline,” said the Belarus coach.
So how has he managed to take Belarus so far in just two years? “The Brazilians Marco Octavio and Gilberto were here before and they made their mark in terms of skill levels. I’ve brought in some aggression and defensive organisation, and the players have felt comfortable with the tactics too.”
Then came the challenge of raising individual standards within a team context, with three players coming for special praise from Nico for their contributions during the qualifying competition:
- Valery Makarevich (goalkeeper)
“He had a fantastic tournament. The keeper is 50 per cent of the team. If he knows what he’s doing with his feet and hands and he can save shots too, then you’re well on the way to winning.”
- Ivan Kanstantsinaiu (defender)
“He’s quick, good in one-on-one situations, and made the right decisions at crucial times. He scored goals, and brought strength and organisation at the back whenever we needed it.”
- Illia Savich (defender)
“He’s a defender who was a reassuring presence whenever we needed to have the ball and make our opponents chase it. He had the maturity we needed to get through those moments.”
Looking ahead, Nico said: “Paraguay is a great opportunity for the team to show what it can do outside its comfort zone, because we’ll be playing against teams we don’t know.”
Though his side’s qualification has aroused a lot of expectation in a country not accustomed to gracing world finals, Nico is keeping calm at the prospect.
“I’ve been to a lot of World Cups and I know what’s at stake and that it’s different to any other competition. The standard is very high and it’s very stressful too. We’re calm and we’re not scared of anything.”
A Spaniard in Minsk
- The language: “I’ve got an interpreter and I’ve learned some beach soccer words. That’s about it.”
- Minsk: “It’s a big city. It’s beautiful and clean and full of green spaces. It’s a lovely place to go for a walk and have a bite to eat and a drink.”
- The food: “That’s the one thing I haven’t tried. For now, I’m eating Italian more than anything else.”
- From Spain with love: “I need ham and olive oil so I don’t miss home more than I already do.”