At the Fifa Beach Soccer World Cup in Rio, Senegal and Nigeria shocked the world by topping their respective groups with some massive giant-killing victories before bowing out in the quarter-finals. Both teams have signalled their intentions of dominating next week’s action, and have sent their national beach soccer squads away on month-long camps to prepare for the event.
The two African representatives may have fallen short of winning any medals in Brazil, but they showed the world beach soccer community that Africa can produce world class tournaments and players – something that will hopefully not be lost on Fifa when the decision on the venue for Beach Soccer World Cup 2011 is announced.
Next week the third chapter in the story of African beach soccer will be written when the third qualifier to be held in Durban gets underway at the new, enlarged 4 300-seater stadium on New Beach.
Senegal and Nigeria will be the two marked teams and they may just find it tough shouldering the pressure of being the favourites every time they step onto the sandy pitch, but there is no way they can be anything but favourites.
At the World Cup finals in Rio, Senegal opened their account with a low-key 4-1 thrashing of Japan, and followed that up with an emphatic 5-2 win over the highly regarded Uruguay.
Things got tougher in the final pool game when the West Africans needed extra time to get past the skilful Italians after the teams were level at 5-5 at the end of full time.
Nigeria also started strongly with a shock 5-3 win over powerhouse Argentina. It got even better in their next match when the Africans produced the upset of the tournament. They scraped home on penalties over defending champions France, before, surprisingly, needing extra time to win their final match against the United Arab Emirates.
Nigeria lost to Uruguay in the quarter-finals and Senegal were beaten by France. But the two teams had made the world sit up and take notice.
The key to Nigeria’s success was the fact that they never had one standout star. Their game plan was built around a team effort with defenders Ogbonnaya Okemmiri and Uga Okpara sharing the goalscoring duties with frontrunner Isiaka Olawale.
Their multi-pronged attack meant they were a difficult side to defend against and the top teams struggled to contain the African onslaught.
Senegal, on the other hand, used Pape Koupaki as their target man up front and he was hugely effective with seven goals from his four matches on the beaches of Rio.
Next week Senegal are favourites to top Group A.
For South Africa, who have gone into the previous two tournaments as group favourites, the tag of underdog may give the home side a chance to prepare quietly and without fanfare.
The final group match between Egypt and South Africa will probably decide who grabs the second playoff spot from the group, although Mozambique will have other ideas.
In Group B Nigeria will have to be at their best to overcome Ivory Coast and Cameroon while Cape Verde should find the going too tough.
The top two teams from each pool qualify for the semi-finals, with the two semi-final winners qualifying for the World Cup finals in Marseilles in July.