Soccer in the sand: Russia’s beach boys conquer the world

Russian beach soccer team won the World Cup this year. Source: AFP / East News / Сollage by Natalya Mikhailenko

Russian beach soccer team won the World Cup this year. Source: AFP / East News / Сollage by Natalya Mikhailenko

Sport expert James Ellingworth ponders why the world’s coldest country is successful in beach soccer and what perspectives await Russia in this sport.

Russia wins the World Cup, crushing Spain 5-1 in the final. If that sounds odd, how about host nation Tahiti’s gallant charge to the semi-finals, with a 6-1 pasting of Argentina on the way?

Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of beach football, where Russia has won the world’s biggest prize, just as temperatures in Moscow dipped towards zero and the country prepared for another freezing winter.

Strange as it may seem, Russia has emerged as the predominant power in beach football, winning the last two World Cups, as the sport rapidly becomes more professional. They’re simply unstoppable.

“If you’re not counting on victory, then why take part at all?” defender Alexei Makarov told RIA Novosti, adding that the achievement would take a long time to sink in. “Of course, we understand that we’re two-time world champions, but a complete comprehension of what’s happened will only come later, maybe even not in a year or two.”

Fittingly for a game born in Brazil, beach football has a carnival air about it. Back in the middle ages, carnival signified a time when the world was turned upside down, a concept that dates back to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, when slaves and masters switched places.

Still hampered by its image as the sort of sport you find on TV at four in the morning sandwiched between motorbike speedway and curling, beach football is quietly attracting a large and growing following worldwide, largely thanks to the array of tricks involved.

The small sand pitch all but rules out dribbling and makes it hard to escape markers, forcing players to rely on the sort of close control, tricks and flicks that would be seen as showboating in full-size football.

The five-a-side format guarantees crowd-pleasing goalfests – indeed 2-0 is the record low World Cup score.

Much like traditional football in the Sixties and Seventies, the increasing popularity of beach football in a wider range of countries is ensuring that the most egregiously one-sided results are a thing of the past. Tahiti’s five-goal margin of victory over Argentina this year seems a lot, but it’s nothing compared to the 14-2 and 12-1 humiliations at earlier World Cups.

Still, beach football remains a long way from the $30bn-plus (£18.5bn-plus) revenues of traditional football, and is even in the commercial shadow of another Brazilian-born variant of the game, futsal, which has had Fifa recognition for a lot longer.

As well as showcasing beach football’s development to date, last month’s World Cup highlighted just how far it has still to go. Russia’s winning squad received just $7,000 (£4,300) each for their efforts, less than a day’s pay for many Premier League players, and the fact that the tournament was held in two tiny Tahitian stadiums speaks volumes about the crowds it can attract.

Why is Russia so strong? First, there’s Russia’s general attitude to sport, best characterised by an insatiable thirst for medals. In a highly centralised system, sports bosses are skilled at recognising niche sports where a more professional approach can bring win after win against largely amateur opponents. At the Olympics, that’s brought crushing Russian dominance in synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics – hardly big-name events, but between them they offer almost as many gold medals as sprinting.

Second, Russia has a huge talent pool of frustrated footballers. With a population of 143 million but only a few more professional clubs than Scotland, most aspiring Russian players face a choice between eking out a far-from-glamorous existence in provincial backwaters and giving up the game altogether.

That means perfect recruits for the fledgling professional futsal and beach football leagues, each of which gets reasonable TV time – appealing for many players who would otherwise be turning out for Dynamo Nowheregrad in the Second Division East.

Third, it’s a simple question of respect. There are exceptions, but generally beach football is treated as a real sport rather than a joke, and success brings rewards. A former coach of the national beach team, Nikolai Pisarev, has since been put in charge of the country’s under-21 side in traditional football. He’s even spoken of as a successor to Russia’s manager Fabio Capello. A beach coach turned national team manager – in most countries, that seems about as probable as a World Cup in Tahiti.

It’s football, but not as we know it – Russia reigning supreme, Tahiti triumphant – although there are signs that this anarchic beach spirit could be seeping into the traditional game. Tahiti reached the Confederations Cup this summer and played the likes of world champions Spain. And Russia are going to their first World Cup in 12 years next year – in Brazil, no less – by qualifying ahead of Portugal. Viva Carnival!

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