- Mexico reached the final in their Beach Soccer World Cup debut
- The country has failed to keep pace with the discipline’s superpowers
- Coach Ramon Raya, a veteran of 2007, assesses the challenges in Paraguay
Twelve years ago, Mexico became the surprise package of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Rio de Janeiro 2007, surging all the way to the final in their tournament debut.
Sitting on the bench that day was Ramon Raya, who is now preparing to oversee El Tri’s sixth World Cup adventure in Paraguay. This is a unique case among the countries that competed in 2007 and that will be present again in Asuncion.
How does he explain such a level of continuity? “On the one hand, this sport has given me so much, both on and off the pitch, and that’s compelled me to work hard so that it continues to grow in my country,” Raya told FIFA.com, a matter of hours before his charges take on Uruguay in their Paraguay 2019 opener. “On the other hand, it may also have to do with the fact that we have not achieved real growth, and that there are not more people interested in learning how to do this job.”
Even so, since that initial appearance, Mexico have only missed two Beach Soccer World Cups: Dubai 2009 and Tahiti 2013.
“We get cycles where players with little or even no knowledge of beach soccer arrive, but we manage to make them competitive in a short space of time, and their quality and influence on the team gradually increases,” said Raya. “But everything depends on the squad we work with during that cycle.”
He continued: “I think I’ve tried to change in tandem with the game, which has evolved a lot. In 2007, the trend in beach soccer was to adopt a style of play that reflected your country. And we found ours.”
What happened subsequently, then, that stopped the Mexicans from competing with the traditional beach soccer powers in the same way? “The changes have been dizzying, and you not only have to reinvent yourself from the outside, but also from within,” explained the Mexico City native. “And that’s where we’ve fallen short.”
And that is why it will be very difficult – almost impossible, perhaps – for any team to repeat Mexico’s achievement in Rio de Janeiro. “I don’t think the conditions are right for it to happen,” stated Raya. “The only team that’s not appeared before is Belarus – they have a very experienced coach, and they play around 40 matches a year at the highest level. We didn’t even have a court to train on in 2007.”
Of course, that does not mean that Raya, who will unofficially take charge of his 200th Mexico game – 19 of which have taken place at World Cups – in his side’s second group-stage match against Tahiti, has thrown in the towel beforehand.
“Our objective is to reach the second round,” said the Mexican tactician, who was recently nominated for Beach Soccer Worldwide’s Best Coach of the Year award. “We have nothing to lose, and it’s pointless coming here with the goal of simply putting in honourable performances. We have to go out there believing that we can beat anyone.”
In addition to Uruguay, Mexico also face Tahiti and Italy in Group B, who are both highly fancied to lift the Cup. “Uruguay don’t use their goalkeeper like Italy and Tahiti, who also like to get the ball forward without it touching the ground. We’re looking at ways to counter them.”
Raya, who also played in the first-ever FIFA U-17 World Cup and coached Mexico at the 2012 FIFA Futsal World Cup, describes himself as a “born competitor”, a character trait that often sees him push his footballers to the limit.
“I try to ensure that everyone does their job to the best of their ability, because otherwise we have no chance,” he said.
The rest, according to Raya, will be dictated by the tournament. “It’s a game-by-game situation. The squad’s mental strength builds up gradually in competitions like these. That’s the key to competing at a World Cup. ”