x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

There’s more to the stadiums than a decent beach

Corporate big hitters including Emirates Airline, Coca Cola and Visa are eyeing the Fifa Beach Soccer World Cup in Tahiti as a vehicle to peddle their wares to an increasingly large audience.

A Beach Soccer World Cup match in Marseille, France in 2008. Philippe Laurenson / Reuters
A Beach Soccer World Cup match in Marseille, France in 2008. Philippe Laurenson / Reuters

From designing and building new arenas to naming rights, the stadiums market is a huge business.

Beach football venues are never going to rival iconic arenas such as the Maracana or Wembley, but building stadiums for the sand-bound version of the beautiful game is a rapidly growing industry.

This increase is being driven by places not always associated with beaches successfully taking up the game.

Russia won the last Beach Soccer World Cup in Italy in 2011. Other unlikely pioneers of beach soccer include Azerbaijan, Ukraine and landlocked countries such as Belarus, Switzerland and Paraguay, who have qualified for the Fifa 2013 Beach Soccer World Cup that starts in Tahiti on Wednesday.

“Some nations are throwing millions at beach soccer, like Azerbaijan,” says John Hawkins, a former manager of the England side and the one-time chief executive of the England Beach Soccer Association (Ebsa).

“They know they are never going to win the World Cup but they could win at beach soccer. Most of these places [such as Azerbaijan] have full team leagues and players can be on up to £10,000 [Dh15,780] bonus for winning big games.”

Seeing the growing opportunities in his sport, Mr Hawkins recently left the Ebsa to form Beach Events & Solutions. “We do quite well just in England but have worked in Antigua and are getting interest from around the world now,” he says.

Beach Soccer & Events advised on the London 2012 Olympics, where, although beach football was not part of the Games, beach volleyball was. That, says Mr Hawkins, has boosted his sport.

“Beach soccer is more exciting to watch and people get sucked into that whole beach culture. You can sit in the stands with a drink and watch great goals; it’s football’s version of 20/20 cricket.”

Even in those countries with plenty of sand, there is more to building a beach soccer stadium than a decent beach.

The Asian qualifiers for the 2013 World Cup were staged in Doha, where the UAE pipped Australia to capture the last Asian place at the finals.

Those qualifiers were staged in temporary venues erected by the Dubai-based firm Harlequin Arena. Paul Berger, Harlequin’s chief executive says 90 per cent of beach soccer venues are temporary but cites Fifa’s involvement and the establishment of stadiums guidelines as key to moving the sport forward.

“Beach soccer is a great spectator sport, fun, very skilful and is where most people [outside Europe] first played football,” says Mr Berger.

“It’s definitely growing in popularity. With Fifa endorsing the sport, more and more championships are being launched globally.

“Clearly, the improvements in the standards of temporary infrastructure means stadiums organisers can have confidence to take their tournaments anywhere and create world class facilities at a fraction of the cost of permanent stadiums.”

In 2011, Dubai hosted the maiden Samsung Beach Soccer Intercontinental Cup, which was won by Russia. Last year, the Dubai Sports Council and Beach Soccer World Wide (BSWW) agreed a deal to stage the event annually until 2017 with the next competition scheduled for November 19 to 23.

Although Fifa is in charge of football globally, apart from the World Cup finals and its qualifiers, beach football is governed by BSWW.

Crowds at beach football games are generally much smaller than regular football but getting the stadium and, in particular, the pitch right is just as big a deal.

“To build a beach soccer stadium outside of a beach in the middle of a street or square, you need 800 tonnes of sand,” a spokesman for BSWW says.

“In our international events we ask for minimum capacity of 2,000 seats in the stadiums.”

A beach football pitch must measure at least 37 metres by 28 metres with a two-metre space behind each boundary. While most builders aspire to create a level surface, the foundations of a beach football area are generally sloped to help with the drainage.

This is essential in case of rain and the BSWW advises using perforated PVC pipes covered with permeable fabric inside gravel-covered ducts and covered again with another layer of permeable fabric.

Once the foundations have been installed at a slight angle, a sand pitch is laid to a depth of at least 40 centimetres.

Not just any old sand will do either; certainly not sand used in general construction.

Beach football pitches need specific sand. Grains must be between 0.2mm and 0.3mm in diameter and are generally sourced from beaches and desert dunes. If this is not possible, industrial sand from the glass and paint industries is used.

A wood or brick retention box is then installed to prevent sand loss and a 1.5-metre high mesh fence installed to prevent animals fouling the pitch. That is easy to spot on a grass pitch but less so in sand, especially as many animals bury their droppings.

Getting the venues right is becoming paramount for a sport aspiring to global popularity and becoming more than a kick-about in the sand.

And an Old Trafford, or Bernabeu, would be a spectacular addition to many a beach.