x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The game is a shore winner

The football variant which originated on the beaches of Brazil is an entertaining and fast-growing phenomenon worldwide.

Alamabla Bakhit, of UAE team, right, tries an overhead kick as Mahammad Zaig of Oman does his best to put him off during their friendly at Al Mamzar beach in Dubai.
Alamabla Bakhit, of UAE team, right, tries an overhead kick as Mahammad Zaig of Oman does his best to put him off during their friendly at Al Mamzar beach in Dubai.

Sun, sea and sand make for a heady concoction. Add football, the sporting world's premier passion, to the mix and you have a success story that is blazing its way up the popularity charts. A lot quicker than its much bigger cousin and blessed with a touch of the spectacular, the best beach soccer has to offer will be in Dubai later this year for its World Cup.

It has been dubbed as a football highlight show, with an average of 60 shots on goal and 11 goals per game. All of that in three periods of 12 minutes each. "I think it is the sand, the beach," said the UAE beach soccer coach Marcelo Mendes as he tried to explain the appeal of a sport that originated on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, his hometown in Brazil. "You play in fantastic weather on some great beaches. The crowd is very close to the match: you can feel the warmth coming from the crowd. This is very important. I think this is why beach soccer is very big.

"You also see some superb goals and exciting matches. It is very difficult to see a goalless draws, or 1-1. Most of the matches have three or four goals at least." The excitement for the sport also stems from the specific needs of playing on soft and sandy surfaces. There are plenty of diving headers and bicycles kicks, and lots of free-fall acrobatics. The need to play the ball in the air also calls for an abundance of juggling skills and many other tricks.

"The ball is in the match all the time. We have around 10 ball boys around the field and the field is very small. When the ball goes out, there is hardly any time wasted," says Mendes. "We have scissor kicks, we have double kicks and we have some spectacular goals. So the sport is a lot more attractive and entertaining for the spectators." It is not easy for the players, though. Physically, it is a lot more strenuous than the traditional version of the game. It demands incredible level of fitness.

"Physically it can be a lot tougher, so fitness is very important. The field is short, but it is hard in the sand," says Mendes. "Walking and running on the sand is completely different. It is not the same as playing on a level, grassy pitch." The testing physical needs of the sport are evident as Mendes works out with his squad of 18 on the sun-drenched sands of Al Mamzar Beach Park. The temperature is close to 45 degrees and even standing in the shade is a test of your resilience.

Yet the UAE captain Bakhit Saad and his side seemed to be enjoying every minute of the workout, drenched in the sweat as they prepare for November's Beach Soccer World Cup to be held in Dubai. "We play on the sand, this is our sport. We must be ready to play in the hot weather," says Mendes. Mendes and Saad's enthusiasm for the sport is shared around the world, even in nations without a coastline, and the sport keeps growing.

Mendes coached Uruguay, South Africa, Thailand and Portugal before taking over the UAE and guiding them to the Asian title. "For me, it is a pleasure to see how beach soccer is going on," he says. "The European qualifiers last week had 26 teams participating. In Africa now they will have nine teams. In Concacaf they have 12 teams. "This sport, year after year, is growing. In South America this year, we had Ecuador and Paraguay participating. These countries don't have beaches, but they are playing the beach soccer. This is very important for the sport."

The burgeoning profile of the sport has attracted plenty of commercial interest, including a partnership with Emirates airline. "It is a new sport and it's really catching on," said Salah Tahlak, the tournament director of this year's World Cup. "Every day Fifa have requests from countries around the world who are interested in the game and they want to host the event. "Emirates was a sponsor in 2006 and will continue their relationship with the event in 2010, and 2014 so together it's good and makes sense for Dubai and the UAE."

Some of the biggest names of Brazilian football honed their skills on beaches: Pele, Romario and Ronaldinho among them. Players such as Zico, Junior, Edinho and Eric Cantona turned their attention to it after their professional careers ended. Tahlak has experienced the enthusiasm of the sport in Brazil and he hopes to replicate it when 15 of the world's best teams join the UAE in the World Cup. "In Brazil you see people playing on the beach at 2am and that is the kind of passion we want to inspire here," he said.

"We saw that lots of Brazilian players like Pele started in beach soccer and we wanted to promote football development here. "We like the simplicity of beach soccer. All you need is the ball and the goals." Of course, you need fans too for an event as big as the Beach Soccer World Cup. Tahlak has plans to attract full-houses. "We went to Rio de Janeiro in 2007 for the beach soccer finals to see how it went there and we saw that they did so much with the time between the games to involve the crowd," he said.

"We will incorporate those concepts into the game here. There is a lot of interaction between the fans and the team and we will obviously adapt it for the UAE, but we loved how it is such a simple game that can inspire so much passion. "We know that Dubai, with its big expatriate population should get support for the all the countries. There are a lot of different national teams and we might target each consulate or embassy and get them involved when their team plays.

"There are more than 200 different nationalities here in the UAE and we want them to come out and support their teams." Expecting a big rush, Tahlak has already planned for a stadium bigger than Fifa's requirements. "The stadium will be on a 1km stretch at the Umm Suqeim beach near the Za'abeel Properties mini island," he says. "The Fifa standard is to have 3,500 seating, but we will have 5,000 and we might put more in.

"We are not thinking to sell the tickets. There will be ticketing so we can monitor numbers and we don't want to pile people in, but we will not charge. For us ticket revenue is not a major factor. "We are planning to shuttle people to and from the venue, so they don't have to worry about parking. We want it to be a family event and for people to make a day of it." Mendes has also extended an invite to the fans, hoping their presence will help his team to upstage some of the best in the game.

"Come to see the game and I am sure you will enjoy it because this is a spectacular sport," said the Zico and Flamengo fan. "I hope when you come to see, you will support the UAE national team." arizvi@thenational.ae stregoning@thenational.ae