Sand Soccer Attracts Players with Grit
by Bill Glose

Virginia Beach, VA - Short fields, no shoes, bikinied spectators. No wonder more than 6,000 athletes came to Virginia Beach for the largest single-weekend of sand soccer in the world.

Sand soccer is similar to its grass cousin, but it uses a smaller playing area and fewer players. Only five players per team are allowed on the field at a time and penalties can remove one of them for two minutes, creating a hockey-like situation. The game flows faster than regular soccer and , though the playing time is shorter (three 11-minutes periods with two minute intermissions), the scoring is higher. The biggest difference, though, and the thing which makes the game so much fun, is the sandy playing surface. The ball never quite does what one expects. It either careens into the air after bouncing off a small dune or it dies in the sand when you expect it to keep rolling. The North American Sand Soccer Championships celebrated its ninth year over the June 7-9 weekend. As many as 50,000 spectators descended on the boardwalk to watch the event and, over the years, teams have come from as far away as Norway, England and Bosnia.

Military kicks in. Local military units provided 100 volunteers to convert 14 city blocks of oceanfront into 39 sand courts in just one day. "This tournament would not be able to operate without the assistance provided by the local military", said retired Navy Captain Dick Whalen, the tournament director. In addition to setting up and taking down, services members compete in their own military division. The Camp LeJuene, NC team "LeJuene United" won the military division, beating the Fort Story (Va) Bandits in a double overtime shootout. This year's military division also had an international flavor. Two British ships, docked in Norfolk, VA, sent teams to compete. Operating Mechanic Murdo Lamont of the British ship HMS Richmond summed up his team's reaction to the sport: "We've never played on sand before," he said. "We're sand soccer virgins. We prefer grass and, of course, we're used to tackling. You can't tackle here." Experience playing in sand is a definite advantage in the game. The Fort Story Bandits have played in NASSC for the past three years and they do all they can to prepare for the harsh conditions. "Running the beach is part of our regular PT," said Sgt. Jose Silva of the Bandits. "It gets us ready for something like this." Not everyone can practice in the sand; duty often precludes it. "Last year, we'd gotten a couple of practices on the beach but, this year, we'd just returned from a 45-day underway," lamented Navy Machinist Mate 2nd Class Jason Pierrle from the aircraft carrier George Washington's team, the Spirits. Though the Spirits played in NASSC in previous years, not everyone on the current team had done so. "For seven of our players, it was their first time (on sand), so there's been a steep learning curve," said Machinist Mate 2nd Class Ryan Betz. "We were much better in our last game than our first one."

A light workout? One Bandits player, goalkeeper Sgt Jeremy Stills, offered some advice to first-timers who think the short fields and clock will translate into a light workout: "Don't think it's easier than playing on grass, because it's not. And if you can't take the heat, stay away from the beach." Marine Lance Corporal Efrain Villon of the Norfolk Marines team agreed that sand soccer is a lot harder than the grass version. "You need a lot more endurance," he said. "The ball just doesn't cooperate." One of Villon's teammates, Marine Corporal Zubah Koweh, added, "playing one minute of this is tougher than playing a whole game of regular soccer." Asked to describe some of the tactics involved in playing in the sand, Betz said, "You try to keep the ball off the ground and do less dribbling. And, you can substitute players a lot more, which is nice, since you get pretty tired out there." LeJuene United's coach, Marine Staff Sgt. Rodriguez Reynaldo, explained the secret to his team's victory: "The guys are still doing the same two or three touches and making passes and they're as physical as normal but we're having more fun out here. It's all about teamwork and fun. That's all there is too it."

Future growth. Whalen expects the tournament to continue growing. "It used to be that we were scrambling for teams right up to the last minute. The first year, I think we sent out 10,000 applications, and we got 26 teams out of it," he said. "We're probably sending out 7,000 applications now, and we're getting nearly 600 teams."

What's on the horizon for sand soccer? Whalen said the Pro Beach Soccer movement hope to get into the Olympics in 2008. "Pro Beach Volleyball has turned into a major professional sport with very significant prize money associated with it and has been in the Olympics as a demonstration event," he said. "Pro Beach Soccer is trying to do the same thing." That may not be easy, since the International Olympics Committee recently changed its policy on demonstration requiring that the only events at the Olympics are medal events.

Nevertheless, sand soccer's most ardent boosters say its popularity is bound to grow because it's just so much fun to play and watch. As Whalen said, indicating the sands where nearly 1,000 NASSC matches took place, "This is really a great big beach party!"