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BREAKING GROUND

Barefoot magic hits Indian beaches

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BREAKING GROUND: Action between Ponda Footballers and Nauxim SC during the Barefoot 2013, beach soccer tournament at Goa's Calangute Beach in Goa, India earlier this week

This entertaining, but demanding, version of football is making a much-belated entry on Indian shores. But like the players say, it is better late than never

Goa's palm-fringed coastline stretching over 100-odd kms has 43 mesmerizing beaches making the state, for anyone and everyone who loves the beach, a dream destination. Football is the staple diet of every Goan worth his fish and feni, and for two successive international tournaments, Goans have earned the right to represent India when events associated with beach and football are held beyond its shores.

At the Asian qualifiers for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup - and that was eight years ago - in Dubai, the Indian team consisted entirely of Goan players, most of whom were in the twilight of their careers. A year later, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) sent another beach soccer team, this time to represent the country at the 1st Asian Beach Games in the Indonesian beach capital of Bali. No prizes for guessing the team composition: it had only Goan players, including coach Bruno Coutinho, striker par excellence, Arjuna awardee and former India football captain.

"It was a wonderful experience and we managed to match the best in the business. Of course, with a little bit of practice and some advanced inputs, we could have had some decent success, " says Coutinho, who is the first player to captain India at both football and beach soccer. He was the coach of the beach soccer team too and India's only representative at the AFC beach soccer workshop in Kalaputra (Sri Lanka) before the sport was put to sleep. "I believe India has better potential in beach soccer than football. It will take us years to match the better football teams in the continent, forget the world, but in beach soccer, we can instantly catch up. The gap is not much, " says Coutinho.

Coutinho has solid results to back his claim. At the Asian beach qualifiers in Dubai (2007), India lost 3-4 against Japan, who eventually qualified for the Beach Soccer World Cup, and matched hosts United Arab Emirates for most part of the game. At Bali, a year later, Coutinho's team gave China a mighty scare by leading till the last twelve seconds, then put it across Malaysia (5-4 ) in a gripping contest. "We gave our heart out. We didn't have a clue of what beach soccer actually was since adjusting to the new surface was a problem, but we knew the basics. It was tough but fun, " recalls Gavin Araujo, a member of both the squads.

Neither Coutinho nor Araujo made it known - not in as many words at least - that India's preparations were just not good enough. A three-week camp before the tournament proper was suicidal. Besides, except for a German coach who taught them the basics of the game through video presentations, there was not much external help as well.

Then there was the small matter of players. All those who made it to the Indian squad were towards the end of their careers or, in some cases, already retired from active football. The likes of Augustine Rodrigues, Remo Colaco, Venancio Gonsalves (Salgaocar), Gavin Araujo (Vasco), Anthony Pereira (Churchill Brothers), were not names that made you stand up and take notice even during their prime. But, like Araujo explains, that was hardly the issue. "Beach soccer demands different abilities. You can't be sure that (Baichung) Bhutia will be a success on the beach just like he was on the field, " says another member of the squad. Coutinho concurs, "It's a different ball game altogether, but I agree you need a couple of younger legs. "

Beach Soccer has been administered the kiss of life by TransStadia, which, through its Beach Soccer Division, has tied up with Beach Soccer Worldwide (BSWW) to promote the sport in India. BSWW created a partnership with Fifa, Fifa Beach Soccer S. L. , in 2005 jointly to manage beach soccer. TransStadia's first step - a small one as they call it - is organizing India's first professional beach soccer tournament at Calangute beach. It's called the Barefoot Festival with plenty of great music and other entertainers thrown in, although until the completion of the tournament in mid-February, you cannot tell for sure the degeree of its success.

"Beach soccer is an entertaining young sport in India's growing economy. It's socially inclusive as well. All that you need is a beach, a football and goalposts. Nothing else, not even expensive and sophisticated football gear, " said Udit Sheth, managing director and CEO of TransStadia, who has already sold his idea to all the stakeholders in the state. The professional beach soccer championship saw 64 teams battle for the top prize and a chance to be among the 'Indian' squad for an invitational tournament in South Africa in March. Sixty two of the 64 teams are from Goa with just Kasaragod FC (Kerala) and Pune's DSK Shivajians - who, interestingly, have a major Goan influence - being the outstation teams. Coutinho is the tournament director and a selector and chances are that when the Indian team leaves for Cape Town in South Africa, he might be forced to don the mantle of coach. "You need a wider pool of players, " admits Coutinho.

That's easier said than done, feels Sheth. But in a year's time, as TransStadia extends its search with competitions and workshops to Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Kerala and Gujarat, the results could be there for all to see. "Beach soccer is an attractive proposition. This is the only sport where music plays throughout the match before breaking off when a goal is scored to announce the scorer's name. It's entertaining. It's fun and so lively, " said Sheth. TransStadia have embarked on an ambitious project and believe they can bring the 2017 edition of the Beach Soccer World Cup to India. It will never be easy to convince FIFA that India, who have not participated in any international beach soccer tournament for five years now, deserve to host the tournament. But stranger things have happened in the past. Tahiti will host the 2013 edition of the Beach Soccer WC while Brazil is an overwhelming favourite to take the WC home in 2015. Goa, sorry India, will have to wait for its chance in 2017.
Until then, head to the nearest beach.

STAR NAMES


Romario, Branco, Edinho, Paulo Sergio (all Brazil) I Altobelli (Italy) I Xabi Alonso (as a youngster), Amarelle, Alan, Madjer (Spain) I Eric Cantona (France)

SOME IMPORTANT FACTS:


Rio de Janeiro hosted the first Beach Soccer World Championship in 1995. 1994 was when the first event was covered by a television network, also held in Rio de Janeiro. Beach Soccer is followed by 71 per cent male and 29 per cent female fans in the ages 15-35 years. 91 per cent followers of beach soccer are football lovers too. With an average scoring rate of 1 goal every 3 minutes, around 11 goals are scored in total per game. Played in 75 countries within the six FIFA Confederation zones.

RULES

A game lasts thirty-six minutes, and is split up into three twelve-minute periods.
Each team consists of five players, including the goalkeeper and an unlimited amount of substitutions, from a selection of 3 to 5 players.
Three referees officiate the match. Two on the pitch and one off, controlling the teams' benches

WHY INDIA?

6,100 km of mainland coastline - 10 states Vast river coastline - some of the big cities are located at the banks of rivers or seas - Goa, Kolkata, Mumbai, Kochi, Chennai Beach lifestyle is extremely popular in India High tourist traffic towards beach locations in India Entertaining young sport in India's growing economy Soccer is one of the fastest growing sports in India Socially inclusive - is played barefoot and just basic infrastructure of sand and some goal posts are needed

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