In mid-September Tahiti will host the Beach Soccer World Cup and, as one might expect, Brazil are the hot favourites. At the last count in 2007, the South American country had 2,097 beaches – easily more than any other nation – and it’s little surprise, then, that they have been crowned the best on the globe a staggering 13 times since they hosted the inaugural tournament in 1995.
Indeed, the first World Cup to be hosted outside Brazil – and away from its birthplace, Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro – was in 2008 when the French hotspot for the sport Marseille enjoyed the responsibility; that was in part down to the charisma of Eric Cantona, in charge of Les Bleus then.
However, the defending champions for this edition in Tahiti – the economic, cultural and political centre of French Polynesia, famed for its black sand beaches – are not the boys in yellow and green, but Russia.
To the uninitiated, that the Eastern European powerhouse are champions of the five-a-side, 36-minute beach format, may be a shock. If you dig a little deeper in the sand, though, you’ll learn of the money the Russians have thrown at developing the sport. There are dozens of indoor beaches, their professional national league is in rude health, the Rubles on offer are astronomical, and that’s down to the status the sport is starting to command.
It’s the second-most popular form of football – behind the 11-a-side grass version, of course – and big business. The stats at the last World Cup, held at the marina in Ravenna, Italy, illustrate its attraction. In the 31 games played 269 goals (most of them outrageous flicks and bicycle kicks) were scored at an average of 8.41 per 36-minute match, and the average crowd was 3,730; for Russia’s 12-8 victory over Brazil there were 5,500 in attendance. With the game on the rise it’s easy to understand how the world’s best players can earn upwards of £200,000 a season.
Brazilian André, who netted Six goals in the final in Italy and won the golden boot with 14, is one of the most highly rated stars at the moment, and countryman Venícius Ribeiro Mariane Fambre, a defender better known as Buru, is another star.
The game’s fading genius is João Victor Saraiva, aka Madjer. The Angola-born Portuguese turned 36 in January, won the golden boot at the 2005, 2006 and 2008 World Cups and can name his price to take to the sand. He has almost the perfect physique for a beach soccer star – balletic, tall and streamlined with strong legs and feet that can run and turn in the sand with ease. (Wayne Rooney, I’m informed, would not make a good player on the beach.)
Then there’s Ramiro Figueiras Amarelle, a Spanish forward who plays for FC Barcelona – yes, Lionel Messi and friends have an affiliated beach soccer side – who regularly wins the most-valuable player gongs, while 23-year-old El Salvador attacker Frank Velasquez is the coming man.
“Those guys are like sand aliens,” says John Hawkins, who almost single-handedly established the England beach soccer side a dozen years ago. “They float across the beach. They don’t stop running for 36 minutes, they are so acrobatic and they can use both feet. You just look at them and it’s a goal. They have training camps, play all the year round across the globe, getting better and better ... and we have postmen, painters and Black Cab drivers.”
Earlier this year, with the Tahiti World Cup approaching, I was keen to find out whether the English had a chance of qualifying – I was rather taken by the idea of covering the Three Lions on an exotic, volcanic island with a population of less than 200,000. And if Russia could win the sport’s greatest prize England had every chance, right?
The initial signs were not good. The national team’s website was very basic, and it took some scratching around to track down Hawkins, who was in charge from the early noughties and stepped away in December, after 12 years of dedicated service.
It quickly became apparent that England had no chance of advancing to the finals. As it transpired they were trounced at a qualifying tournament in Moscow in July last year and only four teams, the semi-finalists – Spain, Russia, Ukraine and the Netherlands – moved on. Disappointment that the Three Lions are currently way behind a raft of other nations in Europe, never mind on the global stage, quickly transformed to an odd pride, however, as I unearthed a much more heart-warming story; a Don Quixote of modern times, if you will.
Hawkins, now 42, returned to his beloved Isle of Wight in 2000 after he had endured a spell in London, and bought Small Hope Beach in Shanklin. The young entrepreneur, a keen footballer and decent cricketer in his youthful pomp, had a background in events and marketing and set about promoting his new acquisition. He soon organised a beach soccer tournament “as a bit of fun and a way of launching the beach”. It was an instant hit. That small-time competition kick-started the English beach soccer revolution.
“The uptake was incredible, it was really quite shocking,” remembers Hawkins. Sports marketing company Octagon, who at that time had the rights to the sport in England, soon approached him in the hope he would do the leg work for them. He agreed and soon took over all of the responsibility.
“It just steam rolled,” he smiles. “It went from me and a friend, Joe Redstone, building a set of wooden goals out of timber, painting them yellow – to make them look professional – and Superglueing them together, to being asked by Octagon, less than a year later, whether I wanted to take over the England team.”
His ebullient personality propelled the interest in beach soccer but, after taking charge and then becoming manager in 2005, he found it an increasingly pricey hobby. “For about four or five years we were the only people actively promoting beach soccer in England and we approached the Football Association and tried to make the sport credible,” he says. “They took a while to agree to us wearing the Three Lions badge and the FA logo but wouldn’t back us financially. It was a lot of fun, but it was becoming very expensive.”
The lack of funding was in part down to the FA’s promotion of Futsal, a technical, indoor five-a-side game which uses a smaller football and, most importantly perhaps, unaffected by inclement conditions. Reading between the lines there was also reluctance because the powers that be deemed beach soccer as FIFA’s play thing, and with relations icy at best with the game’s leading authority, the FA were always cool on the idea.
That the FA’s purse strings were drawn taut did not curb Hawkins’ enthusiasm initially, although last summer’s qualifying proved a fatal disappointment. In the first qualifying game England were narrowly defeated by Azerbaijan – and that contest served to highlight the main issues facing the England side.
“You tell people walking along the street that England were knocked out by Azerbaijan and they just mock you,” continues Hawkins. “What they don’t understand is that the Azerbaijan beach soccer team is basically the national football team. They are all fully professional players, and all they do is play beach soccer, they have everything funded. They were on a £10,000 win bonus each to beat us – that was more money than we had generated that year to fund our season – and we lost 4-3.
“Our players then were juggling playing beach football around their jobs and families and with next to no money. We would have to put together £8,000 or so to fly the team off to an event, and it has been really, really tough. We usually punch well above our weight, but as we normally don’t win then it’s not newsworthy, and it does not resonate.”
In spite of that England have produced a number of decent players in the last decade, including current manager Terry Bowes. Until his early 20s he was mates with Ashley Cole and a promising left-midfielder on Arsenal’s books. Now, aside from managing the national team, he is a London Black Cab driver.
Then there is GC Giancovich, a former spear fisherman and a chef, who became England’s first-ever professional player in 2008 when he signed for Serie A side Cervia. And Mitch Day, who plies his trade in the tough Swiss league for Grasshopper Club Zurich, is another star performer, while postman Jamie O'Rourke has to ask Royal Mail for special permission to play for England and Isle of Wight painter Matt Evans is the new great hope.
There are signs of improvement in the infrastructure, too. Regions have now been chalked up and footballers across the land have access to beach soccer, at least in theory. Hawkins has moved on, but did so with a final, selfless flourish: he won the right to design and build five of the six Olympic legacy beaches for London 2012, and had the sport he has devoted so much time, effort and money to in mind, naturally.
His successor, David Jones, has been involved in the England set up since 2007 and he is determined to develop the game. “It's a great small-sided version of football that should be being played by far more people in England,” he says. “I want to help to change that.
“John had a massive hill to climb when he first took over. He's achieved an awful lot in his time and most people won't appreciate just how difficult it has been. I plan to move the sport forward, especially into urban areas. We need more players, more teams and move activated regions.”
Another goal for Jones is promotion to Europe’s Group A, which comprises of the top eight nations. England, currently one rung below, will host an annual National Championship event, says Jones, in the hope of increasing the talent pool.
He even believes that the FA can be won round, and their cheque books opened – “I'm sure their interest in the sport will increase once more people are playing the game” – and has targeted a second World Cup final appearance (after the third-placed finish in the eight-nation inaugural tournament, before the professional era).
“It is much harder for a European nation to qualify as we only have four places and Russia, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Switzerland will always be strong contenders,” Jones adds. “Ukraine and Belarus are emerging fast and then you have Poland and Romania. However, if Holland can qualify, as they have done for Tahiti, then with some improvement there is no reason why England can't.”
While I’ll not be in Tahiti when the World Cup kicks off in September, to watch Russia defend their World Cup or the Brazilian sand aliens, with a favourable wind England, with a bit of luck and a lot of investment, may soon be at beach soccer's top table once more.