Beach Socceroos aim to make World Cup waves

It started out for David Zdrilic as a “social kick-about” on Bondi Beach – but he's now on the verge of captaining Australia in its first Beach Soccer World Cup attempt.

Remarkably, the Beach Socceroos haven't even played a single warm-up match in preparation for this week's World Cup qualifying tournament for Asian nations in Qatar.

Instead, in their first match of any kind during this campaign, Australia began their qualifying tournament with a 6-4 win over Oman on Wednesday.

That's not to be sniffed at considering the Omanis have an organised beach football league and regularly play internationals.

The Socceroos back up again just 24 hours later on Thursday morning when they face off against Qatar, who lost their opening match 7-3 against Afghanistan – meaning the Afghans sit above Australia in the four-team group.

Only the top team qualifies for the semi-finals, and only the top three overall teams qualify for the World Cup in Tahiti later this year.

The star of the Australian team should be familiar to any soccer fan. Zdrilic played for the Socceroos 30 times during his playing career but has since fallen in love with the sand-based version.

Now 38, the former Sydney FC striker showed his class by scoring the final goal in the win against Oman. Though he knows how unlikely it is, he says the team has only one aim – to qualify.

“Of course we're outsiders but we wouldn't be in Qatar if we didn't think we could make it through,” he said.

“We're under no illusions about the quality of the competition and how much more experience they have, but we've been doing everything we possibly can – without being able to play a proper game.

“We play against ourselves, but that's it in terms of the 'opposition' we've faced. It's a world apart from the Socceroos. But our fitness is good, our touch is good, so why not?”

Zdrilic isn't the only ace in coach Airton Andrioli's armour. He's got a small army of ex-NSL and A-League players filling out the ranks.

Ante Juric played four games for the Socceroos in 2002, the mid-point of a successful career that also saw him play extensively in the NSL and for the Olyroos and Young Socceroos. But at 39, he's still not the father figure.

That honour goes to former Wollongong Wolves championship-winning defender George Souris – now 43 years old and a veteran from the 2009 qualifying campaign.

Then there's a trio of comparative youngsters whose A-League careers never quite took off.

Panny Nikas spent time with Central Coast and North Queensland and, at 24, may still have a career ahead of him – and clearly has good touch given his four-goal haul against Oman.

Nik Tsattalios, who signed for Sydney FC as a 17-year old and spent time at Newcastle and Wellington, is also there.

Michael Matricciani was part of Adelaide United's inaugural A-League squad and has since carved out a niche as one of the top strikers in South Australia's state league.

Zdrilic, now a television analyst with SBS, came to the game only after his days as grass-field player were well and truly finished, and he began with no intention of becoming a dual-international.

“About three years ago, a lot of the boys at SBS – including Craig Foster and [commentator] Les Murray were playing beach football down at Bondi Beach and it just started as a social kick-about, but I was instantly interested,” he said. “I started my own version of it – a 3-v-3 version – over at Tamarama, but it was still more focused on fun and fitness. I entered into a few beach tournaments, and in one tournament in Wollongong, the Australian coach spotted me and called me up.”

For those thinking about following his lead and trading in boots for barefoot, Zdrilic says it takes some getting used to.

“The main differences come in how you use the ball. There's a lot more flicks and tricks but they're very useful,” he said.

“You have to be smart with how you run or you'll burn out too quickly. Once you get used to it, it's a fantastic sport.”

The story Beach Socceroos aim to make World Cup waves first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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