After disappointing so many beach soccer enthusiasts last year, it has taken just a few weeks this summer for Spain to erase the dark days of 2005. They have turned the page in considerable style too, brushing aside their continental rivals to claim the European title at the Superfinal in Marseilles.
"It's time to celebrate now and we can be proud of all the work we put in this summer," enthused Joaquín Alonso after watching his players see off Portugal 4-2 in the final. "We kicked off our season with a very poor showing in the Italian leg of the European League, but we always know we could reach and win the Superfinal."
Fittingly, it was the team's star performers Nico and Amarelle who set up victory with two goals each. Back to their best this season, the awesome strike duo inspired the rest of a side that must now be regarded as one of the most fearsome outfits on the global scene. Just how good they are is an issue that will be resolved in Rio de Janeiro this November, and their conscientious coach is not about to let them lose focus now. "Today was also the start of our preparations for the World Cup," he warned.
The future looks bright for the Spaniards beyond the end of this year as well. After all, not only does Joaquín Alonso boast experienced players such as goalkeeper Roberto and defender Javi in his ranks, he can also turn to an emerging generation headed by the likes of Johny and Iri.
Portugal plagued by lack of depth
Someone who no doubt wishes he could say the same is Zé Miguel. The Portugal boss may well be able to field some of the best beach soccer exponents on the planet in Hernani, Marinho, Alan and Madjer - the latter being perhaps the very best of all - but he has not succeeded in filling his bench with exciting, new talent. For example, youngsters Belchior and Jonas have some way to go before they attain the standards set by their elders.
Overall, it is tempting to cast the Portuguese in the role of eternal bridesmaids after their runners-up finish in the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup last year and their two losses to Brazil in Mundialito finals since then. Having said that, however, until their defeat at the hands of Spain the Selecçao lit up the European League, and they will take to the sands of Copacabana beach more motivated than ever this November.
As for the remaining three European teams who will join them there, a significant element of surprise characterised the different journeys taken by all. For fans of Italy, the surprise might be that they failed to better defend the Superfinal crown they won last year, yet it was that achievement itself that really shocked observers. On the beach, the Squadra Azzurra never looked a notch above the rest.
This time around, the Italians enjoyed a little less luck perhaps but continued their progress by winning their own round of the European League and finishing fourth in Marseilles. That left them one spot behind Poland, the true revelations of 2006. Group B champions at the start of the season, the team led by former international Jacek Ziober fully expected to struggle once they took their place among the continental elite.
How wrong they were! Playing to their strengths with a physical, long-ball game derived in large part from Futsal, which many of their squad also play, the Poles held their own against the best all summer. And after winning the French round held in Tignes, the team blessed with Sagan, Zukinho, and Viki fully merited their place on the Superfinal podium.
Levelling of the playing field
In contrast, world champions France appeared lacklustre and disorganised throughout the European season. True, they lost a major attacking force in Rio 2005 star Anthony Mendy, who signed for a professional club following his exploits, but that was far from being the only problem afflicting Eric Cantona's men.
Unsurprisingly, the French trainer could not mask his discontent after the Superfinal. "Our goal was to be champions of Europe, not to win the final of the 'Last chance bracket'," he explained. "Luckily, we eventually managed to regain our form from last year. Now we have to keep working even harder to make sure we don't lose it again."
That could well be a mantra employed by a large number of nations this winter, not least because the most glaring trend during the 2006 European League season was the impressive progress made by the Old Continent's less-vaunted sides. Countries like Greece, Hungary, England and Montenegro showed they can trouble anyone on their day, and that can only be good news for a discipline hoping to raise its level of competition.
Euro Beach Soccer League 2006
1 -. Spain *
2 -. Portugal *
3 -. Poland *
4 -. Italy *
5 -. France *
6 -. Switzerland
- Qualified for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Rio de Janeiro 2006.
Best player: Madjer (Portugal)
Best goalkeeper: Roberto (Spain)
Best young player: Viki (Poland)
Best Group A tournament: Portimao (Portugal)
Best Group B tournament: Poddebice (Poland)