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07 Mar 2019
The AFC Beach Soccer Championships kick off today!
The fight for one of the three tickets for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Paraguay 2019 begins in Pattaya (Thailand)
The race for one of the three tickets to the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Paraguay 2019 at stake in Asia has just begun, as the ball starts flying today in Pattaya, kicking the AFC Beach Soccer Championships Thailand off.
This is how the different four groups were distributed:
Group A: Thailand, Afghanistan, Malaysia and Palestine
Group B: UAE, Lebanon, China PR and Kyrgyz Republic
Group C: Japan, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait
Group D: IR Iran, Oman and Iraq
Lebanon and China will give the competition the staring signal, followed by the game facing Afghanistan and the hosts of the last continental qualifier, Malaysia. After them, UAE will take on the debutants Kyrgyz Republic, just before hosts Thailand hit the sand, facing Palestine.
In the official presentation of the competition, we could listen to all of the national coaches, ahead of what seems a truly competitive competition.
Khodabandehloo, who led Thailand at the AFC Beach Soccer Championship in Malaysia two years ago, believes hosting the competition has the potential to help his side in Pattaya, but the experienced coach - who turned 60 on Saturday - is aware that playing at home can act as a double-edged sword.
"We are the host and we have to do whatever we can to make our fans happy," he said. "We are trying not to put pressure on ourselves, we are tying to be free of pressure."
"Being a host is an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is you are playing at home, in front of your crowd, but if you cannot perform well it is going to turn back against you and become a disadvantage.
"It can play a very big role for us, but I've already spoken to my players and we don't think about it at all. (To us) we are not the hosts, we are the guests."
While Thailand are regular competitors on the Asian beach soccer scene, opponents Palestine haven't been seen at the top Continental level in recent years, and Khodabandehloo conceded he is still learning about his opponents.
"Palestine are very unknown and secretive (for us). We don't know anything about Palestine," he revealed.
"Going back to 2012, the last time I saw Palestine, that time they came third in the Asian Beach Games, so going back to history, they are a very strong team and I think I'm going to have a tough game."
Palestine are a team with high hopes, with head coach Imadeldeen Hashim declaring his objective is to qualify for this year's FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in Paraguay as one of the top three sides in Thailand.
"We have a clear goal in this tournament. I know, and my players know, this is tournament is very difficult, especially for my team which has not participated recently, but my goal is that I want to go to Paraguay come November," he said.
"My goal is clear and I trust in my players and respect all the teams in this championship."
Meanwhile, Malaysia head coach Mohammed Faizal So'od pinpointed his side's opening match against Afghanistan as a crucial fixture in their bid to finish as one of the top two in Group A, and advance to the competition's knockout stage.
The same sides met on the opening day in Kuala Terengganu two years ago, with Afghanistan prevailing 5-3 on that occasion, and Malaysia's boss believes reversal of that result would provide a major boost to their hopes.
"Yes, of course (it's a key match)," he said. "Our first match is very important. I remember well that we lost to Afghanistan (in 2017), so for me, the team that makes less mistakes will win this match."
Lebanon went agonisingly close to reaching the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup two years ago, but they will be forced to work hard against every opponent, starting with China PR, if they are to go a step further in Thailand, according to head coach Alex Braga.
The Cedars suffered the painful double blow of losing on penalties in the 2017 semi-finals against the United Arab Emirates then falling to Japan in the play-off for third, but their effort has sparked hopes that the West Asian side can make history by qualifying for this year's global Finals in Paraguay.
Braga believes his side are capable, but insists they will need to every point in what he sees as a difficult Group B.
"It's not an easy tournament. There is no easy game here. I know China started from one year ago (in their preparations)," said the Brazilian.
"We prepare our team to play and work hard, but there is no easy game and we need to be careful against all the teams.
"We have a chance to do something here - I'm not going to sit here and say we don't have any chance - No, we have a chance to something, but we need to show our work inside the pitch."
The first assignment for Braga's men comes in the shape of a Chinese side under the tutelage of legendary former Spanish national team star Amarelle, who is coaching the side at the AFC Beach Soccer Championship for the first time.
The 41-year-old, who scored over 300 international goals in a superb playing career, has the task of leading a side which lost all four of their matches in the competition two years ago, and he admits that short-term success is unlikely for his side.
"For us this event is an amazing chance to learn, to practice and to give our young players experience," said the former FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Golden Ball winner.
"For sure, we will try to win all the matches but our goal is not only to win. Our goal is to do the right things in order to learn and improve."
"All of our matches will be difficult and at a high level. For our players it will an amazing experience."
Also in action on opening day are 2017 runners-up United Arab Emirates, who meet tournament debutants Kyrgyz Republic.
UAE head coach Mohamed Almaazmi revealed his side's lofty two-step ambition of World Cup qualification, followed by becoming Asian champions, but acknowledged the Central Asians would be no easy-beats.
"I respect all the teams in this tournament and I think there is no weak team," he said.
"Kyrgyz Republic are participating for the first time in the AFC Beach Soccer Championship. I respect this team and I think all the teams are here to be competitive."
Kyrgyz Republic boss Muktarbek Orozbakov has had to contend with below zero temperatures in the harsh Central Asian winter while planning for the tournament, but said his side are set to compete in their debut on the Asian stage.
"Our country is very cold in winter, and it is very difficult to prepare the players," he explained.
"We come to this championship for the first time, and this first match will be a very difficult, very strong match."
The only Asian nation to have appeared at every World Cup, the East Asians are one of the Continent's traditional beach soccer heavyweights, and are expected to be among the contenders once again this year, but their highly-experienced mentor expects to be challenged, starting with their opening match against Kuwait.
"I've been involved in beach soccer for over 10 years, and I think this is the most competitive competition we've had in Asia," declared the 62-yer-old.
"I see the coaches and players at the Asian level are growing, and I expect a very difficult competition."
Ramos' story is a remarkable one. Born in Brazil, he carved out a 20-year professional football career in Japan, eventually representing the senior national team 31 times in the 1990s, before playing a major role in the development of beach soccer in the nation.
Now in his third stint as Japan head coach, Ramos has returned to the sport following a spell in charge of professional football club FC Gifu, and he is excited by the development being made on the beaches of Asia.
"I've been away from beach soccer, but I've been watching all the games and competitions," he said.
"The coaching level is going up, and the coaches are teaching the players. Looking at the World Cup, teams like (Islamic Republic of) Iran and Oman are competitive against European and South American teams. Every Asian team is growing and the level is growing."
"Ten years ago I didn't believe Asian teams could be the finalists in the World Cup, but now you see Iran doing well, and it's not only Iran who are doing well. I believe every team has the potential to be competitive."
One man who will be hoping to prove Ramos right is new Kuwait head coach Ahmed Abdelrazak, who has lofty ambitions for his new side having enjoyed previous success with his native Egypt, who now sit 12th in the global rankings.
"The Kuwait federation has a plan to develop the national team for the next two years, and I promise we will achieve great things in the next two years," he said.
"We had a very short period for preparation, around two months only, but Kuwait have the passion to reach a very high level in this tournament. That's why they contacted me, and we made a long term plan to develop the team.
"When I started working with the Egyptian national team we were ranked 74. After four years of working, last year Egypt reached fifth in the world. I will implement the same plans and I have the passion to make the same success with Kuwait," he concluded.
The other match in Group C will see an all-West Asian affair between Bahrain and Qatar, with both coaches hoping their youthful sides can perform strongly. on the Continental stage.
Bahrain are one of six Asian nations to have appeared at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, but head coach Mahmood Al Ghawi believes his side has a long way to go before they can finish as one of the top three sides in Pattaya.
"I know everyone remembers Bahrain from 2006 and 2009, when we were among the top teams, but our team now is new. We must try, but it will difficult for us as we lack exposure," he conceded.
Qatar have also had minimal exposure to competitive beach soccer in recent years, but coach Abdullah Jassim said his players would give their all.
"We came to this competition having stopped for two years after the last tournament (in 2017)," he said. "We have a new team and in this competition we're trying to have a new experience and reach the highest level we can."
With a legion of stars including Mohammad Masoumizadeh and Mohammad Ali Mokhtari at their disposal, the reigning champions are among the favourites to claim the title on March 17, but Ocatvio knows there are countless examples of highly-favoured teams coming unstuck and urged his players to perform from day one.
"Two days ago we saw Real Madrid lost at home, and we had an experience in my country Brazil, where we lost a (FIFA) World Cup semi-final 7-1 as favourites (against Germany in 2014)," he said.
"So we learn, and we know we are powerful and we have a good team with a lot of confidence, but we also have a lot of respect for our opponents. We have strong teams who are working just as hard as us.
"We now have to concentrate 100 percent on our first match against Iraq, who are a very strong team who have made a very good preparation."
As if being drawn against the holders wasn't difficult enough, Iraq's other Group D opponents are Oman, who have made two appearances at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup.
"The first match we play is against the second (ranked) team in the world. This is a good experience for our players," said head coach Karim Moghaddam, who will compete against his country of origin on Matchday One.
"We must play against some of the best teams in Asia, and we will try to play very well."
Meanwhile, experienced Oman head coach Talib Hilal said his side would be well prepared despite watching as the odd team out on Matchday One.
"It can be an advantage or a disadvantage (not to play on Day One) and it depends how you prepare yourself," he said.
"The advantage is that I can watch my opponents and prepare my team against them, and the disadvantage is I have many days of rest before my first game, but we are ready."