El Salvador back on world stage after eight-year absence
Their forward Frank Velasquez topscored in Concacaf qualifying
"Always hold onto your dreams," he tells FIFA.com
For almost ten years now, Frank Velasquez has been dealing with the twists and turns that life has put in his path – some for the better but others for the worse. The Salvadoran knew his life was going to change after a memorable moment on 8 September 2011, when his El Salvador side eliminated hosts Italy at the quarter-final stage of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Ravenna. Italy scored five goals; El Salvador six, with Velasquez netting four of those.
"I have very fond memories of that World Cup,” Velasquez begins. “I won the adidas Bronze Boot and Bronze Ball, and also scored the goal of the tournament. We beat Argentina, who at the time were one of the favourites, and then we managed to write the biggest story in our footballing history by eliminating Italy.
"Italy were hotly tipped to win the World Cup and many people wrote us off ahead of that game. I remember being at our hotel and hearing that flights home had been reserved even before we played the game," he reveals. "It was a joyous and incredible story for us. We gave absolutely everything of ourselves and people will never forget that."
For as long as he can remember, Velasquez wanted to play football. His dream was to represent his country at 11-a-side, something he almost achieved with the U-17s. However, his family’s precarious finances meant there was no money to pay for his training trips, so he settled instead for the sands of Barra de Santiago, the Salvadoran beach where he grew up.
"I was still harbouring dreams of traditional football when I took part in a beach soccer tournament at our local beach. I entered it in because my brother was taking part and we were beach boys. From that point on, I was all in, though we played without rules, just for fun," he explains.
"Then in 2009 we were taught the official rules and finished runners-up at a national tournament with me as the competition’s top scorer. That led to a national-team call-up for the Dubai 2009 qualifiers. There were 24 of us battling for 12 squad places. I gave it everything and got to play my first World Cup at the age of 19."
When two years later La Selecta took fourth place in Ravenna with a serious of superb performances, there was a great deal of interest in Velasquez. "It was one of my best periods, and there was a very good chance I could join a European club."
However, life took one of its unexpected turns when a knee injury woke him from sleep just a couple of months after the World Cup.
"Life taught me a lesson – that as well as joys, there will also be sad times. It turned out that I’d damaged a cruciate ligament, meniscus and cartilage. I spent a year recovering and thought many times that I’d never play again. But thank God I succeeded. It was very hard, but that helped me build more fortitude."
Against all odds, the Salvadoran managed to return in time for Tahiti 2013, the last Beach Soccer World Cup El Salvador participated in.
"We lost a lot of what we’d gained. The team was in the midst of a generational change, which is very difficult. After 2015 I stopped being involved with the national team. I’d had some family problems and was not called up for the qualifying tournament."
Despite all that, Velasquez never gave up, continued to work hard at club level and returned to the national team set-up ahead of Russia 2021. And not only did he help La Selecta secure qualification with a tournament win, he also finished top scorer in Concacaf qualifying.
"Never give up on your dreams. There were times when I thought I’d never play another World Cup, as everyone was saying that my generation were finished. But we still have top quality players [from that era], and we’re proving that. We’re very motivated because we’re going to a first world country where beach soccer is very professional."
While fully focused on making history in Russia, the 31-year-old knows that the tournament’s group phase will not be easy.
"We have to compete with all we’ve got, as the European teams control the ball very well. Switzerland have some very illustrious players, such as Dejan Stankovic, a beach soccer legend. Belarus will be taking part in their second consecutive World Cup, and what can I say about Brazil… except that I’ve dreamed of playing against them since I was a kid," he says.
While there will inevitably be talk of repeating the heroics of 2011, Velasquez prefers to be cautious and take it one step at a time.
"We’re working very hard to try to reach the quarter-finals, and if we get there, we can then look to bigger things. The 16 teams taking part are the best in the world, so we’re fired up to try to realise the dream of a lifetime," he concludes.