Speedy construction may be commonplace in Dubai, but it’s still hard not to be impressed by the stadium that has sprung up in mere weeks over at Umm Suqeim beach. It’s all happened rather quietly, but in the world of beach soccer, Dubai has made an indelible mark.
This week, the 2009 Fifa Beach Soccer World Cup opens in Dubai. It’s only the second year that the event has been held outside its spiritual home on the coastline of Brazil, yet this fast, hard and fanciful variant of football attracts a surprisingly dedicated following around the world. ‘The whole game is different,’ says Salah Tahlak, the tournament’s director and a passionate adherent of the sport. ‘With only five players on the pitch, including the goalkeeper, you see a lot more tactics and technique come out.’ We compare the style of play to street football, another reinvention of the beautiful game associated with Brazil, and Tahlak agrees. ‘This is a real spectacle. You see tricks and technique – maybe a player will make five kick-ups before sending the ball. Or you see a goalkeeper hurling himself hard at the sand to get the ball.’
While the UAE still struggles to make significant headway in the international 11-a-side game, the beach soccer team have carved out something of a name for themselves. They hired Brazilian coach Marcelo Mendes after a bitter loss in 2006, when the UAE hosted the World Cup qualifiers, and since then the national team have been crowned Asian kings for two years running. And despite finishing in 10th place at last year’s World Cup, Tahlak is confident that hosting the tournament here will have a big impact on the local team. ‘They’re very ready for this,’ he says. ‘They’re fit, and are going to surprise everyone.’
Tahlak believes it’s simply the prevalence of sand that has given the game so much local popularity. Many young footballers, who are brought up playing recreationally on disused sand lots, are forced from the start to get used to the additional stamina required to keep running and dribbling on sand. ‘I remember when we were kids, we used to play in this big empty space, just sand, in Bur Dubai close to Al Bastakiya. That big pit is still there and kids still play sports in there. Back then the technique wasn’t like it is now – we used to play with a heavy, normal football. But a proper beach soccer football is very light.’
He insists that the physical demands of the game cannot be underestimated. ‘You don’t realise how tough it is. The pitch itself is soft, heavy sand, so when you run over it, half of your foot is deep in the sand.’ This, he explains, only adds to the manic pace of the game. ‘The fun part is that you may see a whole team keep change every three or four minutes. There are 15 players in a squad who come on and off throughout the three 12-minute sections of the game.’
The UAE competes against an unusual mix of nations in the competition. Brazil, predictably, are last year’s reigning champs, but this year sees Cote D’Ivoire making their tournament debut, and the return of Nigeria and the Solomon Islands. Bakhit Saad, team captain for the UAE squad and voted Asian Player of the Year in 2008, tips Portugal as the favourites for this competition. But he’s conscious of Uruguay’s participation this year. ‘They play a style similar to Argentina, who beat us in Marseille last year,’ he explains.
Trawl through YouTube’s mass of beach soccer videos and the fast-paced and infectiously manic style of play really becomes clear. Smaller teams and big personalities add a lively, local feel, while tricks, techniques and a whole lot of atmosphere make this a very accessible game of football.