According to Team GB Beach Soccer players Sarah Kempson and Katie James, the difference between playing football on grass and sand is that beach soccer is the true beautiful game.
The game, which comprises three 12-minute periods, might share a scoring system with football but, says James, that’s all they have in common: “I don’t think you can even say they're similar sports really.” Players only stay on the pitch for two to three minutes at a time due to the intensity of running on sand and the game is much more aerial than you’ll see on the grass.
James explains: “As a nation, we like to play the pretty game, so we like to get it up and play in the air, but you have other nations who will play on the sand and do that side of the game. It's a lot more technical and fast-paced.”
Kempson agrees: “I absolutely love beach soccer and I think the biggest sell for me is it's an absolute showcase of technical ability in sport. Sometimes if you watch a ninety-minute football game, it can be interesting but maybe you'll see one or two moments of brilliance. On a beach soccer pitch, you’re seeing every 35-45 seconds an overhead kick or someone controlling the ball from a long distance and volleying the ball in. It’s a beautiful game, the best bits of football on the sand.”
Kempson started playing beach soccer seven years ago after her coach who was also a beach soccer player encouraged her to take up the sport. She’s England captain, has played in Spain and now represents Team GB.
James was likewise introduced to the sport through her grass manager and was encouraged to play to help lose weight. Like Kempson, she has competed at a national level and in leagues abroad – which operate differently to grass in that they take place over weeks, rather than months. She says: “It's been it's been a very long journey in terms of getting to the position where I can now represent GB and actually call myself an athlete which I wouldn't have thought four years ago.”
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Both players currently play beach soccer for Portsmouth. James also plays on grass for Portsmouth FC and Kempson played for Lewes last season, however this season she is focusing her efforts on beach soccer. She says she is still on good terms with the management team there and hopes to return to grass in the future.
Playing on a world stage
Beach soccer is an FA approved discipline that will feature in the inaugural ANOC World Beach Games. Hosted in Doha, the teams will be playing in 35-degree heat and will first compete in a group stage – Team GB will face Paraguay, America and Russia. The top four teams across the two groups will then qualify for the semi-finals. James says: “Any team which has managed to qualify is always going to be a difficult team to beat.” She adds: “Obviously our hopes and expectations are that on the final day of competition we will be competing for that gold medal.”
England’s beach soccer team were European Champions in 2017, but Team GB faced a difficult journey to qualify for the World Beach Games. Kempson says: “We had a bit of a dodgy start, to be honest – we were a bit poor in the first game and we made it very difficult for ourselves. We went into the final two games needing to win those games in normal time in order to stand a chance to qualify and we were facing very difficult teams.”
They won both their remaining qualifiers and Kempson says it was a turning point for the team: “I remember the whistle going in the final game and jumping over the barrier with the whole team and realizing we pulled off a little bit of a miracle.”
Now the team are ready and raring to go. To prepare for the heat, James and Kempson explain they have been following a six-week training plan that included working out in hot yoga studios and wearing thermals, even when the sun was shining.
A balancing act
Everyone on the team has been balancing this with a full-time job – some of the players are teachers, some work in offices, one is a builder and another a full-time footballer. Kempson says: “It's been pretty flat-out in preparation. A lot of us work Monday to Friday, and then our Saturdays and Sundays are for beach soccer, so essentially we haven't really had a day off for the last seven weeks.”
James works in an office and says she finds the balance okay because she doesn’t bring work home with her, but for around half of the team who are teachers – Kempson included – it’s not so simple. Kempson says: “It's always a difficult balance and the ideal situation in life is to be able to play full-time sport but I think all of us would say that it's an absolute privilege and honour to play for GB, so I don't feel like I ever want to moan about the fact that I've got a full-time job. I love my job anyway as a teacher, but I don't feel like I should ever moan. It's a balance but it's worth it in the end.”
Many of the team do have to take unpaid leave to attend tournaments. James says: “It is a strain a bit financially but for an opportunity like this it's a strain I'm willing to take on.” Kempson adds that when it comes to the teachers – most of who teach PE – the schools are often very supportive: “We want to be the best role models for our students in school and our schools are really supportive of allowing us to have that opportunity to show off our talents.”
Aside from unpaid leave, the costs to the team can vary according to the tournament. For the World Beach Games there will be no expenses for the players which, Kempson says, should help their performance: “Because it's still a developing sport, we don't always get the glamour of sport that you would expect England ladies to have. I wouldn't say we've roughed it, but we’ve not necessarily had the five-star hotel lifestyle. I don't think we need that any way we're quite humble as a team, we're there to play but now we're in a position with Team GB where we're really looked after and can a hundred per cent focus on our job which is to be the best athletes we can be and come back with that gold medal.”
Both Kempson and James say that the World Beach Games competition will be strong. James says Russia, Spain and GB are the favourites, but anything could happen at a world competition. She says: “You've got new teams like Brazil and the USA. Brazil are technically able and the USA is very, very physical and love to run, so I think whichever way you come at it, there's always going to be challenging.”
The future of the game
Have they seen participation increase over the years? Kempson says it’s a growing sport worldwide and more and more women are taking part. She says: “My wish is that we can come back having performed at the World Beach Games hopefully with a gold medal and be able to show the sport off in the UK. We want it to be a grassroots game, we want to build it up from the bottom so that we can create a pathway for other players to experience the things we've experienced.”
Both would love to see the formation of beach soccer leagues in the UK and James is working to create a solution for the weather-dependant nature of the game: “I'm currently pushing to try and open some form of indoor venue because I think in order for the game to grow and people to be interested it needs to be an all-year-round sport. That's the struggle is getting those girls who are playing grass to play a sport that could essentially only be two or three months of the year because of the weather.”
What about the impact of the growth in the women’s grass game on beach soccer? James says it’s something they’ve seen in drips and drabs: “Naturally as the women's game grows more kids are getting involved, so there's more interest than there was, but I think we definitely want to push it more.”
Kempson adds: “We are hoping that we get more of a media influx, so we can really push that side of the game and generate that interest because it's not for our benefit, really. As I said, it is a beautiful game and if we can share that and give people opportunity then that is the most important thing.”News Now - Sport News