SLEEPER SOLOMONS AIM FOR WORLD BEACH SOCCER TITLE

Feature

By Gordon Glen Watson

HONIARA, Solomon Islands (Oct. 11) - Anticipation and excitement is high in the Solomon Islands with just over four weeks to go before their 2006 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup campaign gets underway in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Affectionately known as the Bilikiki, the team carries not only the hopes of their country to the tournament, but that of the Oceania Football Confederation and its member associations.

[PIR editor’s note: FIFA, the Zurich-based Fédération Internationale de Football Association, is the international governing body of soccer and one of the largest sporting organization in the world.]

But standing in front of the Bilikiki will be an array of Beach Soccer talent formidable in its composition and experience. While stage fright might be an understandable possibility for the Melanesian debutants, it's a possibility less likely for the battle hardened Portuguese.

The Euro Beach Soccer League, which will enter its eighth season in 2005, is the largest beach soccer competition in the world, with 20 nations involved, and is the competition that has honed a sustained period of success for Portugal as Europe's premier Beach Soccer power alongside rivals Spain.

Portugal's defeat in the 2005 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Final against Eric Cantona's French side was a rare anomaly for a team used to regularly finishing in the top four of previous unofficial world championship tournaments. It says much that the Portuguese staged a late revival, clawing back the match to 3-3, before eventually losing in a sudden-death penalty shoot-out.

Nuno Belchior was Portugal's hero in their desperate fight-back and lends potency in attack next to Madjer - the former Algerian international and FC Porto European Cup winner - who blasted his way to a 12 goal haul and the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup MVP Award.

For the Bilikiki, modesty characterises the ability of its squad by comparison. There are no superstars, no former European Cup winners, but a collection of individuals with a handful of experience in the local National League competitions that make up the Oceania Football Confederation.

One such pairing that captures this spirit of youthfulness is that of coach, Eddie Omokirio, and his younger brother and captain, Gideon Omokirio. The pair - both devout Christians - fashioned useful domestic and international football careers. Gideon played in the New Zealand National League for Nelson United and Nelson Suburbs and helped himself to 34 caps for the Solomon Islands national team. He was also part of the Solomon Islands team that clinched a sensational 2-2 draw against the might of Australia during the 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, a campaign that saw his country pip New Zealand for the FIFA World Cup playoff spot.

Eddie Omokirio will coach the side alongside another former Solomon Islands international Vivian Wickham and he believes that his country has a bright future in both Futsal and Beach Soccer. Eddie's religious convictions add further steel to growing impressions that the Bilikiki might be able to cause an upset when they reach Brazil.

If the remarkable does occur and the Bilikiki do cause a first round upset, it could well be in front of a television audience unprecedented in Solomon Islands international football history with Beach Soccer watched on television in almost 150 countries across Africa, North America, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific thanks to a partnership between organising body Beach Soccer World Wide and ESPN.

The set-back of a cancelled journey to the Reunion Islands could yet come back to haunt the erstwhile Solomon Islanders. If the prospect of matching their skills against the best was enough to whet the appetite, the flight itinerary and projected budget blow-out caused a collective bout of indigestion. It is sincerely hoped that this does not affect performances in Brazil too adversely.

But as the Solomon Islands are used to showing on the football pitch, there is hope. Star player James Naka hails from the Gwaunaoa village in the Kwaraae region of Malaita Province and now a member of Kossa FC in the nation's capital Honiara. Naka is by far the most exciting player in the Bilikiki squad and will be out to show his skills in Brazil. His pace, movement and ability to beat players are his biggest assets. Naka is nicknamed "the laughing machine".

The people of the Solomon Islands hope to see his broad smile on a successful Bilikiki Beach Soccer World Cup campaign on the sands of the Copacabana.

Gordon Glen Watson is Media Officer for the Oceania Football Confederation.

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