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Brazzil - Sports - March 2004

Brazil Wins. Nobody Cares.

Brazil has won earlier this month the 10th World Beach Soccer
Championship, for the ninth time in 10 years. The Brazilians were
the most impressive team and only faced a tough game in the
final against the European champions, Spain. Despite the triumph,
however, beach football is not more than a novelty act.

Shafik Meghji

It is arguably the most spectacular location for a sport's stadium in the world. The purpose-built World Beach Soccer Championship stadium sits on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro amidst the bronzed bodies, golden sand and crashing waves.

At the north end of the ground, rising above the stands, is Sugar Loaf, its cable cars seemingly suspended in mid air. To the side, behind the press box and VIP lounge, the statue of Christ the Redeemer looks down on the pitch below from his lofty position high above the city. Needless to say, the sun is shining.

Unfortunately the action on the pitch largely failed to match the peerless setting. The football throughout last month's tournament was of variable quality, with only really the eventual winners and hosts, Brazil, beaten finalists, Spain, and Portugal rising above the mediocre.

The sport, which is played on a sand pitch between two teams of five players and often features spectacular goals, has been played recreationally across the world for many years. But it was codified in 1992 and the World Championships, which have since been dominated by Brazil, were launched. There are an average of sixty shots and eleven goals in each match.

Despite the lure of free entry, attendances for particularly the opening rounds of the tournament were disappointing with the stadium often less than half full. As anyone who has stood in the stands at the Maracanã Stadium for a Rio derby game or attended an international fixture involving the national team, Brazilian supporters are amongst the most colourful, passionate and noisy in the world.

But despite the best efforts of the McDonald's sponsored brass band and the energetic orange-clad warm-up men, those who did make it into the stadium were unusually subdued, rousing themselves only to cheer on the home side and boo arch-rivals Argentina.

The undoubted star of the show, amidst the multitude of retired professional players, former trainees and budding enthusiasts, was former Manchester United striker, amateur poet and sometime actor, Eric Cantona. Although looking heavier than in his playing days, the Frenchman demonstrated some of the tricks and flicks that made him famous as a professional footballer. Each goal he scored was celebrated in his trademark Gallic manner, chest pumped out, arms thrust forward, head to the sky.

More surprising for a footballer notorious for attacking a supporter who verbally abused him during a game, was Cantona's new-found desire to play the peacemaker. Throughout the tournament, brawls and fracas—some of which appeared suspiciously stage-managed—broke out on the pitch between opposing players. On more than one occasion, Cantona was on the scene to restrain or offer a sharp rebuke. But even with Cantona's hectoring and impromptu team talks, France was unable to claim the title.

The Brazilians were the most impressive team in the tournament and deserved victors. They cruised through the opening matches with ease, but faced a tough game in the final against the European champions, Spain. In a repeat of the 2003 final, which Brazil won 8-2, the home side, inspired by Jorginho, later voted player of the tournament, edged out their opponents to win 6-4.

Brazil coach Ferreira Alves paid tribute to his players. "We won a great game against a very mature and conscious Spanish team who put us behind to score twice, which was the first time in the championships," he said. "We stayed calm and maintained our determination to come back and win the game."

But despite the triumph of the home team, the flashes of skill and the heavyweight sponsorship of numerous multinationals, beach football appears likely to remain in its niche as simply an interesting novelty act.

Shafik Meghji is a frelance journalist based in London, but currently travelling and writing his way around South America. He has worked for the London Evening Standard and the Press Association and has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian. He can be contacted at shafikmeghji@hotmail.com

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