The Beach Soccer World Cup gets underway on Thursday in landlocked Paraguay. But if it comes as a surprise that Fifa would awarding hosting rights of the beach-based sport's grandest event to a country entirely surrounded by land, you’ve not been paying attention.
Fifa awarded the central South American country the tournament in October of last year after Australia and Barbados – neither particularly short of beaches – decided against following up their official declarations of interest.
Previous iterations of the biennial competition have been hosted by, among others, Brazil, the Bahamas, Tahiti and Dubai.
It’s fair to say Paraguay marks a slight diversion from the past. Uncharted waters, if you will.
A brand new 2,820-capacity beach soccer arena – the Los Pynandi World Cup Stadium – has been erected at a cost of $1.5 million (Dh5.5m) on the grounds of the National Olympic Committee in east Asuncion.
Sixteen countries have qualified, including the UAE, Oman, world champions Brazil, and hosts Paraguay. Italy and Tahiti will kick the event off on Thursday at 4.15pm local time, (11.15pm UAE). The Emirates start their campaign on Friday against debutants Belarus.
Fifa will no doubt have been reassured by Asuncion’s relative tranquility. While almost every other country in South America is being destabilised by political protests, Paraguay appears to have left behind decades of turbulence, military dictatorships and authoritarianism in favour of a functioning and civil democracy under president Mario Abdo Benitez.
In a rare display of sport being trumped by society, the Paraguyan government withdrew from hosting the 2022 South American Games after deciding funds needed to organise the event would be better spent on a new hospital.
The country did, however, successfully host football’s Copa Sudamericana earlier this month between Ecuador’s Independiente del Valle and Colon of Argentina, while September’s Beach Soccer Copa Libertadores final acted as a test event for this month’s World Cup.
Fifa vice-president and Conmebol president Alejandro Dominguez said the World Cup is “the result of a shared dream," adding that it puts Paraguay in “the international spotlight of football”. Yet even some local media seem bemused by the sport’s grandest showcase being held here.
“It’s so strange,” said Francisco Clamer, a sports presenter on Telefuturo. “Firstly, beach soccer is not popular here because we don’t have beaches. And secondly, in Brazil and Argentina you can play at the beach so it's free, but here you must be a member of a club and use their facilities. It’s expensive.”
To suggest Paraguay has no beaches at all is not entirely true. The 2,500km Paraguay River runs through four countries, serves as a border with Argentina, and at the Bay of Asuncion has a 750-metre stretch of sand and silt known as Playa de La Costanera.
During low tide, residents can be found sat in collapsible chairs drinking yerba mate, pedalling rented pleasure boats, or kicking inflatable footballs haphazardly. You would not want to misplace a punt though – tonnes of garbage were recently removed from the river and the Ministry of Health deems it unsuitable for bathing.
Yet despite the riverbank proving a popular place among the city’s residents during sweltering 40-degree afternoons, promotion of the World Cup is invisible.
The official poster was launched only 48 hours prior to kick-off and there are more people talking about Saturday’s Copa Libertadores final in Lima than the beach soccer showcase eight kilometres along the road.
Gloria Aguayo, a local resident who works in advertising, was playing with her two young sons by the water’s edge on Tuesday. “A World Cup? In Asuncion?” she replied when asked if the family would be attending. “I know nothing about it. Where is the publicity? Where will the matches be played?”
There is hope though that things will pick up once the tournament starts – and it will continue to ride a wave of popularity long after the final on December 1.
“Beach soccer is a sport that is growing and Paraguay is getting better all the time,” said Nico Ledezma, who worked for the Paraguay Football Association for 14 years before joining Radio La Union. “I think we will see a big jump in interest because of this event. In 1979, when Victor Pecci reached the final of the French Open at Roland Garros, tennis exploded in this country. Everything is set for the same to happen with the Beach Soccer.”