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
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 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
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 fracassome of which appeared suspiciously
stage-managedbroke 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