- Uruguay are back at the Beach Soccer World Cup for the first time since 2009
- Head coach Miguel Aguirre Zabala talks all things Celeste
- Free tickets: book yours now
A whole decade has gone by since Uruguay last appeared at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, too long an absence for a team that finished on the podium at two of the first three world finals and placed fourth on their last appearance in 2009.
"The main reason is because we didn’t change in time from one generation to the next,” said Miguel Aguirre Zabala, a veteran of those now-distant campaigns, and now the coach of a Uruguay side just days away from its opening match at Paraguay 2019.
"That was a generation of winners, made up of the best players in the country, but there weren’t many others around and it was easier just to leave things as they were,” said one of the two Uruguayans to have played 20 Beach Soccer World Cup matches, a national record.
Aguirre Zabala also pointed to his own part in Uruguay’s ten-year slump: "I think we also got a bit tired and lost that motivation we had in the early days, the desire for glory that we’re now looking for with this new generation."
As he went on to acknowledge, the changeover has not been smooth, despite him taking over as national team coach in 2012: "My former team-mates were still the best and I kept picking them.
"We failed to make it to the next two World Cups, but in 2016 we agreed with the Uruguayan FA that the best thing to do in the 2017 qualifiers was to plan for 2019. It’s taken a lot of work but we’ve got there."
The main problem he faced was finding players. "There is a league but it only lasts for a month and a lot of the players come from other sports, like futsal or 11-a-side," he explained. "We virtually had to start from scratch."
So what did that involve exactly? "We look for people who have certain skills – quick players, strong players, players who can shoot – and we apply those skills to beach soccer. We tell them how to run on the sand, how to run with the ball, the aerial game. We even had to show some of them the rules."
Nor was it easy to learn to live with defeat: "We went from only losing to Brazil at the South American Championships to losing to everyone. But we had to compete if we wanted to improve."
Uruguay signed an agreement with China PR to play an annual tournament, which they won three times in a row, albeit against modest opposition. They then got back to winning ways in South America.
"After finishing third in the Copa America and scoring some impressive results in the development league, we started to believe we could qualify for the World Cup,” said Aguirre Zabala. “And we did it by beating Paraguay, the second-strongest team in South America, in the semi-finals."
All eyes on Paraguay
Aguirre Zabala, who is also a futsal coach, has learned a few things from his side’s preparations for Paraguay 2019: "We went to the World Beach Games in Qatar a few weeks ago and I took a bit of a battering on a tactical level."
Expanding on that, he said: "All the goalkeepers we came up against were good with their feet and that gives the opposition a numerical advantage. We’ve never run as much without the ball as we did against Japan and Russia, who will also be at the World Cup."
Analysing Uruguay’s rivals in Group B, the coach had this to say: "We know Mexico well and have worked something out for them, but they’ve got more experience.
"Italy have got [Gabriele] Gori, but they’re not unbeatable," he added. "And though Tahiti seem to be a cut above, they’re not Brazil, who are almost untouchable."
Aguirre Zabala, who has an analytical mind but is the superstitious type – he never wears anything green, for example – picked out his two leading players: "Matias Cabrera is the most experienced. He was a World Cup runner-up in 2006 and is the only one who’s played at the world finals. The captain is Gaston Laduche, who’s very mature despite being only 23.
"We’re also travelling with six players who’ve only been playing beach soccer for a couple of years or so. That’s what we have to do for the future, though."
Setting out Uruguay’s objectives for Paraguay 2019, he said: "If we win two matches and make it out of the group, that would be a great World Cup for a team that’s finding its way."