Senegal, Nigeria looking for a second chance

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But from next Tuesday on Durban's New Beach, a group of relative youngsters will be hoping their underdog status allows them to achieve what the big-name stars could not achieve.

The 2008 version of the qualifiers will feature the same eight teams that were here last year and the stadium, built to strict Fifa specifications, is almost identical, but only Senegal and Nigeria are hoping for a similar outcome, while a South African squad with an average age of less than 21 will be hoping to pull off a couple of surprises.

Last year it was Nigeria and Senegal who earned their places in the qualifying tournament finals and with it a spot in Rio.

On Copacabana Beach, they stunned the beach soccer world with some giant-killing performances and both African teams reached the quarter finals.

In the pool matches, Nigeria beat former world champions France, as well as the highly regarded Argentina, while Senegal proved their pedigree with victories over Uruguay and Italy, both top-level beach soccer teams. In the quarter-finals Nigeria were undone by France and Uruguay ousted Senegal.

The two teams arrive at this year’s World Cup qualifier ‘with virtually the same teams which contested last year's qualifying tournament and went to Rio, which means both sides are bristling with players who know the pressures of beach soccer and have a taste of playing against the best in the world.

On paper, it seems unlikely anybody will topple Nigeria and Senegal and they are comfortable favourites to contest the final in a week’s time.

Senegal is in South Africa’s group for the initial round-robin pool stage, along with Egypt and Mozambique.

South Africa’s young side will have to play out of their skins in their first game as a unit if they are to upset Senegal on the opening day; while they simply have to beat the weakest team of the group, Mozambique, to have a chance of reaching the semi-finals.

It is the last match of the pool, when South Africa take on the skilful Egyptians, which is likely to decide the runner-up spot for Pool A.

Pool B will be a massive dogfight with Nigeria facing a tough struggle against Cameroon and Ivory Coast, while Cape Verde are likely to struggle to record a victory.

The South African team has a completely new look this year, although it contains more experience than the young average age suggests.

Over the past two years the likes of Mark Williams, Mark Fish, Gary Johnson, Marc Batchelor and Gary McNab were upstaged by their relatively unknown opponents and Safa has taken a decision to build for the future with a young side rather than look to some wise old heads to help get the team to the finals.

The result is a team with an average age of less than 21, but behind the youthful exterior there is a strand of experience running through the squad.

Eight of the 12 squad members have played in one or both of the previous qualifying tournaments.

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.

The pool matches (four each day) take place on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (March 25-27) with Friday a rest day. The semi-finals are on Saturday, March 29 with the 3rd/4th playoff on Sunday followed by the final immediately thereafter.

Fixtures:Tuesday, March 25Cameroon v Cape Verde IslandEgypt v MozambiqueNigeria v Cote d'IvoireSouth Africa v Senegal

Wednesday, March 26 Cameroon v Ivory CoastEgypt v SenegalCape Verde Island v NigeriaSouth Africa v Mozambique

Thursday, March 27 Cape Verde Island v Ivory CoastMozambique v SenegalNigeria v CameroonSouth Africa v Egypt

Saturday, March 28 Semi Final 1: 1st Group B v 2nd Group ASemi Final 2: 1st Group A v 2nd Group B

Sunday, March 29Playoff for 3rd place: Semi-Final losersFinal: Semi-Final winners