Monday 12 December 2016, 02:52

All eyes turn to the beach for African contenders

All eight teams participating in the 2016 CAF Beach Soccer Africa Cup of Nations that gets underway in Nigeria on Tuesday, of course, want to win the coveted trophy. But also on offer is one of two tickets for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in the Bahamas next year.

Fans at the finals in Lagos can be excused if they have a feeling of sense of deja vu as the participants have a distinct feeling of familiarity. Egypt, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Madagascar, Morocco, Senegal and the hosts Nigeria all participated at the showpiece event of African beach soccer last year, with the only newcomer being Libya, who took the place of 2015 hosts Seychelles.

Even the groups look more or less the same, as Egypt, Nigeria and Côte d'Ivoire have again been drawn into Group A, where they are joined by Ghana. Madagascar, Morocco and Senegal already made each other’s acquaintance last time around, and they are joined in Group B by Libya.

The Supersand Eagles have qualified for the World Cup four times, but their last appearance on the global stage dates back to 2011. Since then, they have twice been beaten in the semi-finals and their fans are now eager to see them go all the way again.

Coach Ejoor Adamu has called up a mix of seasoned experienced players like Isiaka Olawale, Victor Tale, who scored six goals at the 2011 World Cup, and Ogbonnaya Okemmiri, who have played at this level before. He has also drafted in and talented youngsters, like goalkeeper Godwin Tale who is only 16 and defender Lukman Ibrahim, who is just a year older.

Adamu has been able to work with his squad for several weeks in a training camp. “We are now ready. We want to host and win the cup," he said. "We have trained, we are fit physically and mentally, so there is no distraction.”

One of the players he can call on is Abu Azeez, who earlier this year was involved in Enyimba's CAF Champions League campaign. The forward, who earlier said that he no longer wanted to be considered for the beach soccer team, was urged to return by officials.

“It is always an honour to wear Nigeria’s colours and I’m sure my team-mates have their minds on the title,” said Azeez. “It is the same with me. I want to do my best for the country just as I always have done in the past.”

Madagascar seek to maintain momentum In Group B the two finalists from 2015 – Madagascar and Senegal – are the favourites to advance to the semi-finals, with the islanders hoping to build on their surprise victory from last year.

Being one of just two teams (the other being Nigeria) to have advanced to the quarter-finals at the global event – in 2007 and 2011 – the west Africans are determined to book one of the two tickets for the showpiece event of beach soccer.

The Barea managed to beat the west Africans in extra time in the group stage and then managed to repeat that success via a shoot-out in the final. Captain Pierralit Tovonay is confident that they will be able to do well again, even though they have a changed side.

"After many months of preparations, we are ready,” he said. “Our main opponent will be Senegal. I think they possibly underestimated us last time, but this time around it will be different. They will take us seriously.”

Tovonay has recently been promoted to lead the side. "It's a great responsibility to be the captain of the national team. This means that coaches expect much more from me. I will do my best to respond as a good leader. I will push the team if necessary, or cheer them up if that is needed,” he added.

Although Morocco finished third in the competition in 2013, when they hosted the tournament and were fifth the last time around, they will be very stretched if they want to prolong their visit to Nigeria beyond the group stage.

Libya are deemed to have even less chance than their north African rivals. Although Nigeria will be their fourth appearance at the finals, they have yet to win a game.