Saturday 04 March 2017, 09:11

Sylla: Everyone is a fan of beach soccer in Senegal

After losing to Madagascar in the 2015 CAF Africa Beach Soccer Cup of Nations final, Senegal began Nigeria 2016 with fierce determination. Their primary aim was to repeat their feat of reaching the showpiece and clinch a ticket to the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Bahamas 2017 – and they ultimately went one better. Pitted against the hosts in the final, the Lions of Teranga triumphed 8-4 to secure their fourth continental crown and become the most successful nation in the competition's history.

The next challenge for Senegal will be to tackle the world's finest in the Bahamas, where they will be representing Africa alongside beaten finalists Nigeria. As the countdown to that tournament continues, spoke with Senegal coach Omar Sylla – nicknamed 'Ngalla' – who gave the lowdown on his team's potential. "The Senegal team is undergoing a period of renewal at the moment," he said. "We're used to taking part in the World Cup, but we get knocked out in the group stage every time. We have a strong team on the continental stage and we're four-time African champions, but we still have some way to go on the international stage. We're going to prepare ourselves in the best possible way to shine at Bahamas 2017."

Fierce competition That will mean negotiating a group that features the hosts themselves as well as Switzerland and Ecuador, who surprised many at the 2017 CONMEBOL Beach Soccer Championship. For Sylla, the draw could certainly have been kinder. "Everyone in Senegal followed that event," he said. "Senegal are used to taking on the host nation at World Cups. We were drawn against Portugal in 2015 and Italy in 2011, so we know all about this type of situation. It's not easy to face the hosts because they have the support of their fans, which hugely increases their motivation.

Sylla recently retired as a player to begin his coaching career, and he expects his sternest test to come against Switzerland. "They're a tough opponent," he explained. "They're one of the best beach soccer teams in the world. They have an experienced coach and a very dangerous attack. I got a chance to observe them in Nigeria, where they took on the Super Eagles, and I think they're one of the overall favourites along with Brazil and Portugal."

In six appearances at the Beach Soccer World Cup, we have only gone through to the knockout phase once. So our first goal is to qualify, and then we'll see what happens.

As for Ecuador, Sylla admitted that his knowledge is currently limited. "We'll be kicking off the competition against Ecuador, who we don't really know. That game is the big unknown for us. I don't have a lot of information on them, but they qualified and that proves they have a great team."

Like most coaches ahead of a major tournament, Sylla has pinpointed that opening game as his team's most significant. "Every match is important, but the first one even more so because it can determine who qualifies for the next round. That's why we'll be doing everything we can to win our opening game against Ecuador and take a step towards qualifying."

If the Lions of Teranga do progress, they will achieve something that has eluded so many of their predecessors – and that is precisely what Sylla hopes to pull off in the Bahamas. "First of all we want to reach the quarter-finals," he said. "In six appearances at the Beach Soccer World Cup, we have only gone through to the knockout phase once. So our first goal is to qualify, and then we'll see what happens."

However his team fare, the Senegal coach is relishing the occasion, and he underlined the importance of holding a World Cup in a smaller, developing nation. "FIFA made the right decision in giving the Bahamas the chance to organise a global event like the Beach Soccer World Cup. Smaller countries need these competitions to develop their infrastructure. The message of football needs to reach everybody. A Beach Soccer World Cup in France or Portugal wouldn't benefit as many people as it will in a country like the Bahamas.

"We in Africa also hope to host a Beach Soccer World Cup because we love football," he added. "In Senegal, everyone is a fan of beach soccer."