Marcelo Mendes is hoping his United Arab Emirates side can leave their mark on the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Tahiti 2013 after missing out on the main event in Ravenna two years ago.
UAE booked a spot in their fourth finals after finishing third in continental qualifying in Qatar earlier this year, and Mendes explained to FIFA.com that his charges are now set on reaching the knockout phase for the first time.
The Emiratis will tackle Tahiti, European champions Spain and the USA after being drawn in Group A at the start of the month, with their campaign set to open against the hosts on 19 September. Two days later, they take on Spain, ahead of a meeting with the Stars and Stripes in their final group outing.
"It's not a bad group," commented a broadly satisfied Mendes. "I'm not saying that because our opponents are weak, but because we've already played against Tahiti and the USA. As a result, we'll be under less pressure against them. Of course, Spain are a very strong side. We'll try to get information on them before our match because we haven't followed them very closely recently. Overall, I'm satisfied with this group, which is easier than groups C and D."
In particular, Mendes is relieved to have avoided the likes of Brazil and Russia, but he knows that his team's hopes of progress rest on a victory against the host nation in their opening encounter. "It'll be anything but an easy game, but the pressure will be on Tahiti," he said. "We've played against them twice already and beat them both times. They'll be anxious to make a good impression at home and in front of their supporters. They prepared well by taking on the Netherlands, but they know they have to beat us. I've spoken to the players about the importance of winning that game for the rest of the competition."
I think the time has come for us to qualify for the knockout phase and it's definitely within our reach.
Progress beyond the group stage would be a first for the UAE. Their maiden FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup appearance came at Rio de Janeiro 2007, when they finished bottom of Group D after a trio of defeats. In Marseille the following year, they secured their first win by overcoming Cameroon, but it was not enough to take them through – and on home soil in 2009 they were unable to finish higher than third in Group A.
Given that record, Mendes is committed to steering his side into the uncharted waters of the quarter-finals, and he believes they have every chance of achieving that in Tahiti. "We're aiming for the quarter-finals," he said. "We were close to making it there at Dubai 2009, when we performed well against Portugal despite losing the game (7-5). I think the time has come for us to qualify for the knockout phase and it's definitely within our reach."
Interest on the rise
Mendes certainly has plenty of experience in the discipline, having coached Portugal, Thailand, Uruguay, South Africa and Turkey before taking the UAE reins. Since touching down in the country, his efforts have done much to spur the development of Emirati beach soccer, with interest growing after he helped the national side seal their maiden FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup berth in 2007. Since then, Mendes has overseen a long list of encouraging results.
"I was surprised when I arrived in Dubai for the first time," he explained, reflecting on his time in the Gulf. "I saw the determination of the people in charge to develop this sport and my first year was very productive. It was very good to qualify for the World Cup, but our ambitions today go beyond that."
Mendes feels that holding the global showcase in Dubai four years ago was another vital step for beach soccer in the UAE. "The media, officials and the wider population began to take a serious interest in the sport while they were following the national team. Thanks to our fine performances, they were able to see that we had a good team.
"It was important for beach soccer here for us to host the World Cup. Since 2012, we've had a national championship, and more and more clubs are taking part in it. In addition, we now have a youth team at international level as well as a senior one. In association with the Dubai Sports Council, the UAE holds a tournament each year which brings together the champions of every continent, which helps get this sport on television and increases its popularity."
Despite that growing interest and the recent development of beach soccer in the country, Mendes feels the national side still suffer from a lack of self-belief. "We need to have confidence in ourselves and believe that we can beat the big teams," he said. "We only need one win against one of the heavyweights for the players to feel they can beat anyone."
Mendes will no doubt be hoping they can prove their potential by toppling Spain in Tahiti on 21 September. Should they achieve that, their first ever FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup quarter-final spot is likely to follow suit.