Russia are the team to beat in Tahiti, according to Brazil
DUBAI // Tahiti, the Lonely Planet writes, is “a mesmerising wonderland”, “shamelessly chic and seductive”, and a “Garden of Eden so damn beautiful it’s hard to believe it really exists”.
The UAE's football superstars might feel a tinge of envy reading that because their poorer cousins, the national beach soccer team, are on that scenic island, enjoying those spectacular sights as they wait for the Beach Soccer World Cup to begin.
Drawn in Group A, the UAE will open their campaign on Thursday (7.30am UAE) against the hosts, Tahiti. Two days later, the UAE will meet two-time World Cup runners-up Spain before completing their group engagements against Concacaf champions the United States on September 23.
As far as the UAE coach, Marcelo Mendes, and his players are concerned that final group match will not be the end of their sojourn, as they are determined to extend their stay in paradise for as long as possible.
“We’re aiming for the quarter-finals,” Mendes, the Brazilian, said. “We were close to making it [to the last eight] at Dubai 2009, when we performed well against Portugal despite losing the game (7-5). I think the time has come for us to qualify for the knockout phase and it’s definitely within our reach.”
The 3-2 win over Paraguay in a friendly last Thursday has given their morale a massive boost. Their confidence was already high after their win in a four-nation tournament in Hungary before they departed for Tahiti.
As to who will be the last team to leave the idyllic shores of French Polynesia, everything points to Brazil, the masters of the game, who have won 13 of 16 previous world championships. They will not have it all their own way, though, as they are likely to run into defending champions Russia in the quarter-finals.
Russia are not only the world champions, they have also won the last two Intercontinental Cups and two successive Euro Beach Soccer Cups.
“Brazil were always the favourites, always,” Junior Negao, the Brazil coach, told Fifa.com, “and now for the first time they’re not. Russia are the team to beat, I don’t mind saying that, and our players are also aware they’re not the favourites here.”
Russia’s rise in beach soccer has been nothing short of spectacular. They made their first appearance at what was the Beach Soccer World Championships in 1996 and did not make it beyond the group stages. They did not return until 2007 and again failed to make it beyond the group stages.
In 2008 and 2009 they made it to the quarter-finals of the World Cup, before last year’s stunning 12-8 victory over Brazil in the final.
“We’re not where we want to be yet,” said Egor Eremeev, the Russian pivot. “We want to win everything there is to be won. We’re a young team and can still improve.”
Brazil’s Negao readily accepts that, but warned: “Are we the favourites? No, we’re not. But there is no other team in the world that can match us in attack. Times have changed. These days the big scalp is Russia and not Brazil. But I think we’ve got the weapons to take that scalp.”
World Cup chart, s16