x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Beach soccer: Brazil aim to keep Russian revolution in check

Brazil have arrived at the Beach Soccer Intercontinental Cup in Dubai to overtake Russia as the world's best team, while the UAE has high hopes of reaching the semi-finals again.

World champions Russia, in white, are among the favourites to win in Dubai while the UAE are one of the most improved side over the years. Jake Badger / The National
World champions Russia, in white, are among the favourites to win in Dubai while the UAE are one of the most improved side over the years. Jake Badger / The National

It has the fourth longest coastline on earth, all 37,653km of it. But unlike Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana, home of the 13-time beach soccer world champions, Russia's beaches are hardly synonymous with football.

And yet Russia have managed to break Brazil's stranglehold in the sport and arrived in Dubai this week for the Samsung Beach Soccer Intercontinental Cup as the world champions. They won the title in Italy last year, only the third time Brazil have not triumphed.

It is a sign of beach soccer's global appeal. Brazil aside, it has allowed some unlikely names to take centre stage.

Russia have only won one international trophy in the 11-a-side, grass-pitch discipline, yet on sand they are the world champions and hold the Euro Beach Soccer Cup title. Switzerland are champions of Europe's other tournament, the Euro Beach Soccer League.

Tahiti and the Solomon Islands are the big names in Oceania, while El Salvador came fourth at the last World Cup.

Is the beach the great equaliser? Well, on sand, the game requires a different, or perhaps exaggerated, set of skills to association football. Beach soccer is no place for Spain's famous tiki-taka. In fact, the less time the ball spends on the ground, the better.

Passes are very often preceded by a little flick of the ball. Volleys, headers and scissor kicks are the order of the day.

That is why, for long, Brazil naturally dominated.

Barefoot children across the country grow up perfecting their skills on the country's famous beaches. There was a time when professional footballers would cross over to beach football at the end of their careers, none more gloriously than Zico and Junior, members of Brazil's 1982 squad, widely acknowledged as the greatest never to win a World Cup.

Others made the crossover, notably Brazilian World Cup winner Romario and France and Manchester United legend Eric Cantona.

But things have changed since the Beach Soccer World Championships (which became the World Cup) debuted in 1995, and the Pro Beach Soccer Tour a year later. A yearly World Championship, which had always been held in Brazil, eventually moved abroad, and from 2009 became a biennial event.

The 13-time champions want their trophy back and are taking a serious approach to preparations for the 2013 World Cup in Tahiti.

"This is the main competition for us this year," current coach Gustavo Henrique Zloccowick Silva, better known as "Guga" said before flying to Dubai. "We are very satisfied with our preparation and hope to perform well in Dubai. Inshallah, we can reach the final."

That Arabic flourish comes courtesy of coaching Bahrain's national beach football team from 2006 to 2009, before taking over his home country's team. He is no stranger to Dubai.

"Of course I've played many friendlies with Bahrain here and also qualifiers in 2006 and 2009," he said.

But last year was his first visit to Dubai with Brazil, where they lost the final of the eight-team Intercontinental Cup to Russia. He is expecting as tough a challenge this year.

"If you look at the teams we're playing, ours is the Group of Death," he laughs. "Switzerland are European champions, Nigeria are also excellent, while Japan are a very, very good team who I came up against many times when I was coach of Bahrain.

It is the Swiss who have arguably the best player in the world - Dejan Stankovic (and not the Inter Milan midfielder). And Dubai certainly brings out the best in him.

In 2009, Stankovic led his country to the final of the World Cup, at Jumeirah Beach in Umm Suqeim. Switzerland lost to Brazil, but his performances earned him the tournament's best player award.

Last year, at the inaugural Intercontinental Cup, the Swiss lost in the semi-final to eventual champions Russia after a penalty shoot-out, before beating the UAE to claim third place.

Once again, Stankovic stood out, his 12-goal haul gaining him the MVP and top-scorer awards.

"It is here where we turned into a Beach Soccer powerhouse. Last year we enjoyed playing here a lot and I think the crowd enjoyed our style," he said. "We love playing in Dubai, it is a top-class Beach Soccer capital, and we cannot wait for the matches to begin."

As for the UAE, they are in Group B with Russia, Tahiti and the United States, and Marcelo Mendes' team have prepared with two close friendly defeats to the Russians at Mamzar Pak in Dubai.

"We needed to be up against such a tough team. There is so much to be learnt just playing against quality sides like Russia," said Mendes of the 4-3 and 6-5 losses. "We will be a much better team when the competition starts on Tuesday."

Last year, the UAE were in excellent company in the semi-final and Mendes has already declared that joining Russia, Switzerland and Brazil again in the last four is the aim this year, before they kick off their qualifiers for the 2013 World Cup in the new year.

It all starts with the first game against Tahiti on Tuesday.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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