Successful teams often combine a healthy dose of talent and experience, but while talent may be innate, experience can take years to acquire. Having been written off as too old in some quarters, Portugal are certainly more experienced than most. And at the start of this year's Euro Beach Soccer League, they set out to prove that all their years together are a currency that cannot be traded.
Their campaign began in San Benedetto del Tronto
with a loss to Russia in the final, followed up by victory on home
soil in Portimao. That was a fine performance, but it was
completely overshadowed this weekend as Ze Miguel's men
clinched the European crown by overcoming France 7-6 in the
Marseilles Superfinal. After tasting bitter defeat so many times in
showpiece matches, this was the perfect reward for Portugal's
golden generation and, at long last, a title to match the unbridled
ability of players like Hernani, Madjer, Alan and Marinho.
"What with the 2005 World Cup and last year's European league, we were starting to get frustrated with all those lost finals," admitted star striker Madjer. "It could have become a mental block, but there was no better way to prove otherwise than by winning a final like this against France, and in front of their own fans."Once the celebrations have died down, Portugal will none the less have to address the paucity of options on their bench before the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2007 gets underway in November. Aside from promising youngster Belchior, they seem to lack players ready to step into the breach.
France impressive, Russia sensational
France coach Eric Cantona can at least console himself with the knowledge he does not have that problem. His side has experienced plenty of turnover without the high standards ever seeming to drop, as demonstrated by the impressive debuts of Samir Belamri, Idriss Saidou and Lionel Falzon this season. And with those budding young talents snapping at their heels, men like Stephane Francois, Jeremy Basquaise, Sebastien Perez and Didier Samoun have all had to raise their game.Les Bleuscan also pride themselves on being the most consistent side this term, having won in Majorca and finished runners-up to Russia in Tignes, in addition to their run to the final in Marseilles.
Ever the perfectionist, 'King Canto' found little to be positive about after the loss to Portugal, however. "Our failure to win in front of our home crowd really sticks in my throat," he said. "Yes, we played extraordinarily well and, yes, Portugal are one of the best teams on the planet, but this defeat is hard to take. We just have to look straight ahead and improve even more between now and the World Cup."The team a lot of people are excited about seeing on the mythical sands of Copacabana beach is Russia.
Nikolay Pisarev's charges earned their place in the continental elite at the preliminary tournament in Athens, and they more than justified their presence by setting the league alight with some stunning skill.Finalists in three of the four legs before Marseilles, two of which they won, the Russians will be one of the sides to watch in Rio. And with players like the excellent Andrey Bukhlitskiy - voted best goalkeeper this season - as well as defenders Yury Gorchinskyi, Anton Shkarin, Ilya Leonov and striker Egor Shaykov, the Eastern Europeans have the manpower to beat the very best, including Brazil. Indeed, their group-stage meeting with the defending champions is shaping up to be a mouth-watering contest.
Apt pupils and also-rans
Until being beaten 6-3 by Russia in the match for third place, Spain won plaudits for their ability to improve as time went on.After two legs, the Iberians found themselves in the unfamiliar position of being second-from-bottom in the standings, mostly due to the loss of several key performers before the season began. It was a worrying start, but they soon gained momentum when new faces Dona, Juanma, Johnny, Javi Alvarez and Ivan Rumbo settled into the team alongside established stars Nico and Amarelle. For his part, Amarelle ended the season as joint top-scorer with Switzerland's Dejan Stankovic, both men having racked up 24 goals.
Italy prevented disaster by emerging triumphant in the Last Chance Bracket, but even that achievement could not mask what was a dreadful campaign from start to finish. Unable to train as they would have liked, the Azzurri only began to produce their best football in the last leg of the tour in Majorca.Their courage was eventually rewarded with a ticket to Copacabana beach and, between now and November, the experience of Roberto Pasquali, Maurizio Galli and Gianni Fruzzetti will no doubt help youngsters Damiano Majorano, Paolo Palmacci and Massimiliano Esposi find their feet.
There was no happy ending for Switzerland, on the other hand, but the Helvetians' excellent performances should not go unmentioned. Overall best player and joint top scorer Stankovic was particularly inspired and, with a little more luck and a few less injuries, he and his team-mates would almost certainly have been Brazil-bound. With youth on their side, however, they will surely take their place on the global stage sooner or later. And the same could also be said of Viki and Sagan's Poland, who were unable to repeat their feats of last year. As for the Czech Republic, there is still much work to be done.
Euro Beach Soccer League 2007Final standings
1 -. Portugal *
2 -. France *
3 -. Russia *
4 -. Spain *
5 -. Italy *
6 -. Switzerland
7 -. Poland
8 -. Czech Republic* Qualified for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Rio de Janeiro 2007
Best player:Dejan Stankovic (SUI)
Best goalkeeper: Andrey Bukhlitskiy (RUS)
Top scorers: Dejan Stankovic (SUI) and Amarelle (ESP), 24 goals
FIFA Fair Play Award: Russia
Best tournament of the season: Portimao (POR)