I caught up with beach soccer at the recent European Games in Minsk.
There seem to be some consistent features about the game. For all the beach vibe, on the evidence of what I saw, it's a bit brutal round the edges. Plenty of elbow.
It also appears to include the play-acting and playing up to the referee that characterises so much of our Beautiful Game.
In fact it was hard to determine whether the players who dropped, stricken, to the “beach” before looking up to the referee like children whose sandcastle had just been trampled were really hurt or not.
All in all, a very successful example of knowledge transfer.
The sand is kept deliberately bumpy, almost resembling a turbulent sea. Players due to take free kicks – and these must be taken by the player fouled – are allowed to smooth clear an area and to then form a little sandy platform on which to rest the ball, as if they were about to attempt a rugby union conversion.
The bumpiness of the sand means you get some daft goals, with the ball rearing up and over keepers from long-range efforts. It's almost as bad as the old Baseball Ground. And that's deliberate.
The difficulty in playing the ball on the ground means the quality action takes place in the air. To this extent it's the antithesis of the purists’ game.
That gives rise also to some more anomalies. The thing you are least well advised to do as a keeper – dandying around with the ball – here is okay. It’s even necessary to get the ball on the move.
As a game, it suits the kind of player who drives you mad because they are always trying out tricks, such as scoring from an overhead kick.
Indeed, so mainstream is this manoeuvre that the rules – again, in apparent antithesis to the ones governing the game with which most are familiar – make it an active offence to attempt to prevent a player carrying out a bicycle kick.
Clearly the organisers back in the day fancied incorporating this peacock flourish – Pelé, Denis Law, Cristiano Ronaldo and let’s not forget Gareth Bale – into their sandy vision of the game.
Whilst running in sand – which used to be a key part of training for many sides, especially those with ready access to a beach – is taxing, and the relatively crowded nature of the game as played on a compact area means there is always a need to seek out space, the relatively static, stop-start nature of the game suits players whose athleticism may be on the wane but who retain all their guile and technical ability.
Eric Cantona, who became a beach soccer legend after ending his career at Manchester United in 1997, was a lethal operator as he trawled through the sand – with seagulls trailing in his wake, naturally.
He joined his brother Joel in the French national team, starting a connection that continued for 15 years.
During that time, as player-coach, he guided France to victory in the 2004 Euro Beach Soccer League and the inaugural FIFA Soccer Beach World Cup.
Cantona’s drawing power in the game was a key influence on the growth of beach soccer – the rules for which were codified in 1992 by the founders of Beach Soccer Worldwide – and in 2002 he said: "Physically it is difficult, technically it is difficult and tactically it's difficult, too. We must work very hard and train regularly together. Beach Soccer has got everything needed to be a great sport."
It certainly proved a success at the Minsk 2019 European Games, where Portugal – bronze medallsts at the first European Games at BKU IN 2015 – beat Spain to gold at the newly-created venue within the Olympic Sports Complex.
This October, men’s and women’s beach soccer will appear in the inaugural Association of National Olympic Committees World Beach Games that will take place in Doha after being reassigned from the initial intended hosts, San Diego.
So will beach soccer one day join beach volleyball in getting on the main Olympic programme?
Among those who have spoken up on its Olympic potential is Simon Clegg, who followed a 20-year career within the British Olympic Association by becoming chief executive of the Baku 2015 Games, and was executive director of the Minsk 2019 Games.
Speaking after watching the Samsung Intercontinental Cup in Dubai in 2016, he said: “I think beach soccer is a fantastic sport. It is very fast moving. It is very dynamic, It is very exciting for the spectators with all the noise and all the excitement that takes place on the pitch."
Clegg, then living in Dubai as chief operating officer of the Expo 2020 Dubai, added: “It is great for me to come down from my office and see this fantastic stadium, to see some amazing players and a great competition. I really look forward to coming back again next year.
“Beach soccer would be a fantastic sport at the Olympics. I think it is really important that the whole beach soccer community dream about that particular goal, because nothing will accelerate the further development of the sport like having it as part of the Olympics. And maybe one day, this dream will come true."