Beach dream
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco () - May 20, 2006 - 12:00am
Summer was over before some of us even got a taste of it. With the sudden barrage of rains, it seems like the vacations are over. Unless, of course, you count people who live in a world where summer is just beginning.

Ten years ago, football coach Mike Athab had a dream. Originally from Iraq but now firmly a part of Philippine sports, Athab saw the growing potential for beach football. They played in the rain, in the heat, and just about anywhere that they could find sand, just to promote the sport.

"It was so hard to find sponsors in the beginning, because we were still new," said Athab, who first came here to test the business climate back in the early 1980’s. "But, like I kept telling people, one day, we will make it. You just wait. The time will come."

Finally, after all the hard work and years of scrounging for money to hold competitions, Athab’s dream is coming true. The Philippine team left yesterday to join the first FIFA World Cup Beach Soccer Asia Qualifying round at Jumeirah Park in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, from May 22 to 26. In its initial staging, the Asian tournament will include five other countries: top seed Japan, host and second seed UAE, China, Iran and Bahrain. In the draw held at the headquarters of Beach Soccer Worldwide in Barcelona, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and China were placed in Group A, while the Philippine has the steep challenge of overcoming Japan and Iran in Group B. Of the six participating teams, three will make it to the World Cup to be held in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil from November 2 to 12.

"I used to tell you about our dream of playing internationally," Athab told The STAR in an e-mail. "Finally, it came true. And this will only be the start of a continuing journey to develop beach football here in our country. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank you for your endless support to me and this sport."

The Philippine team is composed of 12 players, mostly from the Philippine Air Force with a few civilian players. Given the seedings, the Philippine must place behind Japan and UAE to become part of the elite 16-team cast to the World Cup at the legendary Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. However, that is far easier said than done. Teams play round-robin inside their groups and the top two from each advance to the semifinals. Our team meets the Asian leader in its first match on May 22. After a one-day break, the Filipinos must defeat Iran. The crossover semifinals follow on May 25, with the final on May 26. The times of the playoffs may change depending on the local broadcaster.

The Asian Zone qualifier is the second of six continental tournaments for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2006. The only nations guaranteed entry are Brazil (as the host country) and its South American neighbors Uruguay and Argentina, who made it outright by conquering the field in the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2006 - Qualifier Macaé, held in Brazil last March.

The prosperous UAE provides an ideal scenario for the game, which has catapulted to even greater fame since becoming a part of FIFA in 2005. The first FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup was also held in Copacabana. France, led by retired Lille sensation Eric Cantona, earned the right to lift the trophy by beating Portugal in the penalty kick shootout after a breathtaking 3-3 tie. Brazil, thanks to legendary striker Romário, finished third and Japan overachieved by ending in fourth place.

Two more slots are staked in the African qualifier in Durban in July, five are up for grabs in the European tournament in Marseille, France in August, one more will be filled up in the Oceania tiff in Tahiti first week of September, and the last two spots will be decided in the North America and Caribe event in the US October 6 to 8.

Brazilians created the sensation of beach soccer out of sheer passion for the sport. Originally played merely for recreation, the sport was formalized in 1987 by a group that regularly met at the Copacabana beach.

In the early 1990s, some famous Brazilian soccer stars who had just retired from field soccer played frequently on the beach, attracting attention from spectators and the media. Because of its strong appeal boosted by the participation of famous players, beach soccer found support to become a business. A sports event group called Octagon Koch Tavares/IBSA, specialized in organizing sports events, gathered the most organized teams to create the first official tournament. Influential Brazilian news network TV Globo, saw the sport as a perfect filler for Sunday mornings to replace high-rating Formula 1 races after Ayrton Senna’s death in 1994. The first Mundialito (a non-official world tournament) was played in Rio de Janeiro that same year.

Hopefully, in the next week, the Philippines will be inscribed in the growing history of one of the world’s most popular professional sports.
* * *
Injured Purefood Chunkee Giant Eugene Tejada will be featured on this week’s episode of The Basketball Show tomorrow at 2 p.m. over RPN 9.

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