PH Beach Soccer team seeks World Cup slot in Qatar

The Passionate Fan

Another Pinoy Football team is striving to make waves, and no, they don't need spikes.

The Philippine Dolphins, the Men's National Beach Soccer team, is off to Doha, Qatar this Sunday. Their mission: to be one of the three Asian teams, out of 16 aspirants, who will play in the 2013 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Final Stage in Tahiti, French Polynesia this coming September.

The Asian qualifiers are set for January 22 to 27, and the Philippines is slated to square off against China, Iraq, and Iran in Group D.

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The group winners will play in a knockout semifinals round. Semifinal winners and the third-place game winners punch their ticket to Tahiti.

Even if the Dolphins don't make the semifinal round, they will play in classification matches, so there will be plenty of games.

Azkals Boogie Margarse and Roel Gener are joined in the roster by their Army mates Ronel Gener and Wilson De La Cruz. Another veteran Beach player, Kale Alvarez, who scored against Japan in 2008, is also in the team, as is Filipino-Brit Jason Joker Arroyo from Nomads Manila.

Josh Beloya from Ceres will also play, as will two Fil-Foreigners with Beach experience, Oliver Potschke and Hawaii native Sean Hungerford, who last played in the UFL for Green Archers United Globe. The last line of defense will be Air Force's legendary goalie, Edmundo “Tats” Mercado.

The head coach is Ahmed Ayada Athab, more commonly knows as “Mike.”

When I interview him he is resplendant in a fedora and tortoise-shell wayfarers and wearing a shirt with the Beach Football Association of the Philippines logo on it, which features a Dolphin tossing a Football on its snout.

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Athab is an Iraqi who came to the Philippines to study in U.P. 32 years ago and pretty much never left. He was one of the founders of the UP Women's Football team and is hailed as an inspiring coach by Sally Jo Bellosillo, one of his former players.

In 1995 he launched the BFAP, which he remains the president of. It is an affiliate member of the Philippine Football Federation.

The BFAP holds regular tournaments in places like Cebu, Subic and Boracay, where school teams as well as other clubs play.

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For Coach Mike, Beach Football is not just a different variant of the sport. It's also a great training tool for regular footballers.

It's a nice cross training for the regular one (form of Football)” he intones in his accented English. “It will strengthen the legs and lower back.”

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This will be the third time that Athab will lead the Philippines to the Beach Soccer World Cup.

In 2006 they sent a team to the qualifers and were thumped 16-0 by Japan and 8-3. But two years later the team gave a much better account of themselves, losing both games to the same teams again, but with much closer scorelines; 8-2 and 5-2.

Those Philippine teams, featuring Azkals stars like Chieffy Caligdong and Ed Sacapano, were the last to play in International competitions. A lack of sponsors meant they had to pass on other tournaments until this year.

Now the team, supported by Columbia Sportswear and Everlast, hopes to have a fighting chance.

Beach Soccer is a five-on-five game played on a smallish pitch that is at least 35m long and 26m wide. There is no offiside rule and games are 36 minutes long, split into three periods of twelve minutes each.

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You are not allowed to sliding tackle, and you can't spray the sand above the waist.

The goal frame is slightly smaller than the one in a regular Association Football game.

The only time I ever saw top flight Beach Soccer was in the Asian Beach Games in Oman in 2010, where I was commentating on Beach Handball for ESPN.

I saw a goalkeeper scoop up the ball from the sand and, from distance, volley it in for a goal.

Beach Soccer has seen high-profile players in the twilight of their careers, like Eric Cantona and Romario, inject star power into the sport, fueling its growth in popularity.

The Beach Soccer World Cup used to be held every year, but it now takes place on a biennial basis. Brazil has dominated the event, but the reigning champs are Russia, who defeated Brazil 12-8 in the 2011 final in Ravenna, Italy.

The Philippines' most accomplished Beach player is actually Azkal Chad Gould from Loyola Meralco Sparks, but since he has represented England in Beach, he cannot play for the Dolphins.

Gould even showed me a picture of him with Cantona during a tournament.

According to Athab, BFAP Secretary General Rea Celine Villa has had discussions with Gould regarding him helping the team out in a coaching capacity.

Athab has big plans for the team. He wants a regular squad that won't need to borrow players from the Azkals or other teams. He hopes that the Dolphins can play both in the World Cup qualifiers and the Asian Beach Games regularly, which would give the team a competition to play in once a year.

But the issue is, once again, the lack of pitches. The team practices in the De La Salle Human Science Institute Beach Volleyball pitch in Dasmarinas, Cavite. They're grateful that the school gives them the space, but it's undersized.

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Athab is hoping that situation will change soon.

I've been requesting, begging officials to put a sand pitch in Manila” he explains. “If you want Beach Football to be famous, you have to have a sand pitch in Manila. Parents will not allow kids to travel to a beach just for a game. We can develop the sport faster with a pitch in Manila.”

Fortunately his alma mater is helping him out.

I'd like to thank UP Diliman. They offered me the land for a pitch. But we need a sponsor to help develop the pitch.”

We've been struggling for 10 years already” he says with a sigh.

A good performance from the team in Doha could help spark interest in the game and turn on Pinoys to yet a another flavor of the Beautiful Game.

We will try hard. The ball is round. We'll do our best.”

I have one more question for Athab. Why the moniker of the “Dolphins?”

Matalino kase ang Dolphin” he answers with a smile.

With smarts, heart, and a bit of luck, this Dolphins team could spring a surprise in Qatar.

You can follow the Beach Football Association of the Philippines on Twitter @bfap1. Follow Bob @bhobg333.