Having missed out on a place at Tahiti 2013, Mexico strode to glory at the CONCACAF Beach Soccer Championship to ensure a return to the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup stage in fine style. Portugal 2015 will be their fourth trip to the global finals and El Tri will be joined on the sands of Espinho by CONCACAF runners-up Costa Rica, returning to the competition for the first time since their debut at Dubai 2009.
The regional qualifying tournament, newly expanded to 16 nations, of which eight were first-timers, was played in El Salvador – with the hosts among the favourites for the title. Yet they could not live up to that tag, finishing down in third and missing out on a spot at the Beach Soccer World Cup for the first time since 2007. With USA coming home in fourth, this meant that neither of the North, Central American and Caribbean Zone’s representatives at Tahiti 2013 will travel to Portugal 2015.
Finding the balance
Despite only boasting four players with previous Beach Soccer World Cup qualifying experience, Mexico were impressive throughout their march to a third continental crown, all of which have come under the coaching of Ramon Raya. Their main strengths included an attack packed with variety, which enabled El Tri to finish as the tournament’s third-leading scorers (33 goals) even without any players in the competition’s top-ten scorers’ chart. Furthermore, Raya’s charges boasted the event’s meanest defence, shipping just nine goals in six games.
In fact, three of those strikes came in their 8-3 opening win over Turks and Caicos Islands, with just one more conceded in the subsequent first-phase wins over Guadalupe (8-1) and Trinidad and Tobago (4-0), the latter offering Los Aztecas their sternest early test. After overcoming a spirited Guatemala side 5-2 in the quarter-finals, Mexico needed to dig deep to sink neighbours USA 4-3 in the last four, a win that guaranteed their ticket to Espinho.
Another of Mexico’s qualities, opportunism, came to the fore in the final versus Costa Rica, with El Tri snatching a goal late in the first period and another early in the second to smooth the path towards a 4-0 win. They thus reclaimed a continental title they had relinquished two years earlier, when exiting at the semi-final stage against El Salvador.
Mental strength and defensive solidity
Though they came into the competition as contenders for a World Cup berth, Costa Rica did not find things simple, at least not after putting together emphatic opening wins over US Virgin Islands (12-1) and Canada (9-5). As early as the close-fought 4-3 win over Guatemala that won Los Ticos their group, Franklin Zuniga’s charges’ emphasis on putting defence first was clear to see.
Tactical discipline, sacrifice and mental steel were again the hallmarks as Costa Rica edged out up-and-coming Trinidad and Tobago 2-1 in the quarter-finals, with those virtues equally on display in the last four showdown versus El Salvador. Up against a host nation side that had been averaging over seven goals a game, Los Ticos smothered their opponents in a 2-1 success that sealed their spot in Portugal – an achievement final defeat versus Mexico did not diminish.
Players to watch
Champions Mexico were once more indebted to the priceless contributions of two members of the squad that finished World Cup runners-up in 2007, keeper Miguel Estrada (voted this tournament’s best custodian) and defender Francisco Cati. Their attacking firepower, however, came via more recent additions to the squad, in the shape of 25-year-old Diego Rodriguez (7 goals), 27-year-old Ramon Maldonado (6) and 22-year-old wide-man David Gonzalez (6), who between them scored 19 of El Tri’s 33-goal tally. Maldonado also took home the competition’s Best Player honours.
Costa Rica, in contrast, had a clear focal point in 29-year-old Greivin Pacheco, the event’s third-leading scorer with 11 goals to his name. Pacheco, a veteran of Los Ticos’ Dubai 2009 campaign, netted five of his side’s six games – grabbing four-goal hauls in two of them – as well as firing the all-important semi-final winner against El Salvador. Also standing out for the runners-up were keeper Bladimir Adanis, defender Andres Villegas, wide-man Jason Campos and attacker William Leon.
And though they will not be at Portugal 2015, Salvadoran star Frank Velasquez – the tournament’s 15-goal top scorer, Lesly St. Fleur of the Bahamas and T&T’s Kevon Woodly all caught the eye with their performances.
10 – All ten of the outfield players in Costa Rica’s squad scored at least once in the competition in El Salvador, though Los Ticos’ 29-goal tally gave them only the fifth-best record of the teams that played six games. Ahead of them in terms of goals struck were El Salvador (43), Guatemala (34), Mexico (33) and Jamaica (32).