USA Beach Soccer coach Eddie Soto saw something special at a small tournament in San Diego, California two years ago. Well over six feet tall, able to hold the ball up and brimming with technical ability, Nicolas Perera – playing for an opposing team – caught Soto’s eye. And it was not the first time.
Back in 2006, Perera’s deft touches and lethal eye for goal undid Coach Soto’s fancied UCLA Bruins 2-1 in the final game of the national university championship. Playing for the University of California at Santa Barbara, Perera was named the tournament’s top player – an accolade that could well pave the way to a bright future in the professional game. But it was as far as he would go in the eleven-a-side version of football. “I pushed it as far as I could,” Perera, now 27, told FIFA.com.
“I was always better on the technical side, in smaller games with more touches,” said Perera, a mainstay for Soto’s US beach boys over the last two years. “Beach soccer is probably as technical you can get. You have the difficulty of the sand, so you can’t dribble. You need to juggle back and forth between the players, and you must have a comfortable first touch. Being able to receive the ball in the air is crucial too,” added Perera, whose elegant technique and ability in tight spaces also help him as a member of the USA’s national futsal team.
Perera’s technical ability is such that it seems exotic in the States, a country where fitness and discipline sometimes trump raw talent and improvisation. He spent most of his first 18 years playing football in Belgium. Holidays in Spain, where he and his father were born, offered an opportunity for football in the sand, the sun on his back. “It wasn’t formal,” he laughed, thinking back to his first taste of Beach Soccer. “It was just for fun, you know like 30 guys on each team, but it had a special quality.”
There’s a lot of spirit in the team. We're a bunch of friends.
Aged 18 and ready for University, Perera was eager to study in his mother’s birth country, USA. “I asked her where would be a fun place to go.” Mom’s answer was simple and emphatic: “Santa Barbara.” Nestled in the warm sands of the Southern California’s coast, the University boasts its own beach, as well as a top football program. “She was right,” he recalled with a chuckle. “It was fun.” It must have been, as he still lives in the bosom of Southern California, 100 miles south of Los Angeles in San Diego.
The striker plays professionally for Milwaukee Wave, one of the oldest indoor clubs in the United States, where the bang and thunder of ice hockey-style dasher boards is favoured over the technical nous of futsal, with its weighted balls and tender touches. “I don’t like all the bash of the boards,” he admitted. “I have other qualities.”
Path to global stage
After a rough start to his career with the Beach Soccer national team, in which the side lost 9-0 to Russia and suffered in most of the games they played, Perera exploded at the CONCACAF qualifiers for this year’s FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup. Played in Nassau, in the Bahamas, little was expected of the Americans, a semi-professional outfit who hadn’t reached a world finals since 2007. “We knew what we had,” he said of the team that Soto has transformed admirably, a side brimming with enthusiasm and talent. “No one else expected anything from us, but we were confident.”
In the end, Perera’s eleven goals were a tournament best and the US, beating El Salvador who finished fourth at the last FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, were crowned champions of the region. “There’s a lot of spirit in the team,” he said, noting there are only two players in the team who make their living kicking a ball. “We’re a bunch of friends. Some of us live here in San Diego, and we set up our own mini-practices with portable goals at the beach. We do it on our own a lot.”
That said, in the run-up to the world finals in Tahiti, Perera and his friends will be all business. They will need to be too, facing the hosts and world powers Spain in the group stages. The overall hope is to survive long enough to meet the likes of Brazil, where some Beach Soccer players make more money than footballers in Major League Soccer (the US’s top pro football league). The fact that the US have never progressed to the knockout rounds of a FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup hardly seems to cross the player’s mind.
“We’ll go into camp and ramp up the preparations,” he said, the sacrifices of professionalism creeping into his voice. “This isn’t the Ping-Pong World Cup we’re talking about here, this is a FIFA World Cup, the real thing,” he added.