Beach boys, big characters and drama guaranteed. Sounds like Love Island, but this is a global football tournament with a difference.
Mark Clattenburg heads the referees, Ron Atkinson is England’s director of football and a Euro 2004 winner makes his comeback.
It is the Socca World Cup – a global six-a-side tournament coming to a pop-up stadium in Crete…
What is the Socca World Cup?
The tournament is a gathering of amateur players from around the world who compete over eight days in a newly built, temporary venue with a stunning backdrop.
From players in grassroots leagues to those who have appeared before thousands, all will feature in a 40-team tournament, which starts on Saturday in the old town of Rethymno, by the Mediterranean shoreline.
“You will sit in the stadium and see the sea,” says International Socca Federation tournament executive Tom Nash.
Matches last 40 minutes, with two halves separated by a three-minute interval.
Many of the rules are similar to football, although there are sin bins and drawn matches go straight to a form of shootout – but instead of traditional penalties, players dribble from the halfway line before a one-on-one against the goalkeeper, under the pressure of a 10-second clock.
For those who may once have hoped to represent their country in the 11-a-side game, this represents the next best thing. A sales rep, insurance broker and PE teacher feature in England’s 12-man squad while Wales have a bricklayer, electrician and accountant.
“As a little boy, everybody dreams of playing for England,” says 27-year-old Helge Orome, a non-league player who has modelled as a body double for Paul Pogba and captains the side.
“You go outside with your football, T-shirts for goalposts, so to be the guy to lead the nation out is a big, big honour, and I just hope to do the country proud.”
Scotland and Ireland also have teams, and are in an eclectic qualifying group that also includes China, France and Iraq.
Big Ron and the small-sided game
“I’ll been helping the manager, having a look at some of the training sessions,” says former Manchester United and Aston Villa boss Ron Atkinson.
Now aged 80, he recalls the benefits of short kickarounds in training sessions.
“With virtually every club I was at, we would have a session of small-sided games, be it five, six or even eight a side,” adds Atkinson, who also managed Atletico Madrid, West Bromwich Albion, Sheffield Wednesday, Coventry City and Nottingham Forest.
“The emphasis was on quality of passing and pace, keeping the game lively. I wasn’t one for wanting players to slog it out in training for two hours. I’d sooner have an hour of high speed, non-stop intensity.
“Sometimes you limit the number of touches, you might say everybody has to push up over the halfway line or it doesn’t count.
“If people are enjoying things, they will naturally work harder, that was always my philosophy – and to be brave enough to take that style on to the field.
“I used to love to go to training camps at World Cups – seeing Germany, Brazil – and it was very similar to what we do. We were always supposed to be the total opposite but I didn’t see much I hadn’t already seen, so it reinforced my beliefs.”
The seaside stadium
The temporary venue is built in the space of a fortnight, and has a capacity of 3,200, with artificial grass used for a pitch which is in heavy demand.
There are 13 matches on the opening day, with Latvia and Egypt opening the competition at 11:00 local time and holders Germany facing Hungary in the evening.
“When the stadium is full and it’s a night game with the floodlights, it is very nice. It’s friendly, but people are still cheering and jumping up and down,” says Julia Colter, who has helped the German team and planning for the tournament.
Greece will boast the services of defender Kostas Katsouranis, part of the side that won Euro 2014 and a veteran of 116 international games.
“I wanted to play again in a team and it is a big joy for me,” says the 40-year-old.
Many players will have been in the youth schemes of professional clubs, but most play the game alongside other commitments.
“Some are in jobs, some are students. That’s the cool thing about socca – they have normal lives and one week a year, they can be superheroes,” adds German Colter.
“They may have always wanted to play in the Bundesliga or 11-a-side but they still have a dream to sing the national anthem and might be brilliant at the small-sided game.
“It is spectacular, fast, you can never relax. People say after 40 minutes that they are completely exhausted. Every second, something can happen on the pitch. You have to run all the time.”
Man in the middle
The referees all use headsets and will include former Premier League officials Clattenburg and Bobby Madley.
Clattenburg, who took charge of the finals at both Euro 2016 and in that year’s Champions League, is now a leading referee in China after a stint in Saudi Arabia.
“I was part of the first Socca World Cup in Lisbon. It was an amazing event with players and referees from all over the world,” he says.
“It’s an exciting moment because in 11-a-side, it’s quite restricted and it takes longer.
“More people are playing six-a-side globally and it’s more enjoyable because anybody can play. All shapes and sizes, young boys, young girls. There are more touches, there’s interaction, it’s over very quickly and it keeps you fit.
“If you look at Lionel Messi and some of the top players in the world, they played futsal, which is a very similar concept – with slightly different rules.”
Clattenburg said the fast-moving nature of the game contrasted with the “stagnation” in some Premier League matches.
“When I reffed there, It wasn’t like the good old days and the 4-3s in the days of Kevin Keegan at Newcastle. It could be zero-zero because teams didn’t want to lose.
“When you see some of the play at the Socca World Cup it’s unbelievable – the goalkeepers are at such a high level.”
Who are likely to win?
Reigning champions Germany are considered among the favourites, and Colter is clearly hopeful about the chances of her countrymen.
“They are amateurs so you cannot compare them with, say Bayern Munich, but our level is quite high,” she said.
“I would say, of course, we will do it. Our main point is to try to make it as professional as it can be. We have worked hard with them to make them focused.
“We have to watch out for England. Scotland are very brave on the pitch and hard fighters – they run forever. Poland were very good last year, the USA should adapt quite well and I would love to see people go crazy for Greece.”
Pakistan are set to be in action again after their debut last year, with players aged 17 to 32 selected after a countrywide trials process.
“Last time Pakistan brought a team, thinking they would do well and got beaten heavily in all three matches,” says Clattenburg.
“They were picking players randomly but now they’ve got a league and the standard is growing.”
Organisers expect millions of people to catch some of the action, with matches streamed on the internet and highlights via social media.
“I think socca, or small-sided football, is one of the most played sports in the world,” says Colter. “The potential to bring more people under the umbrella is really huge.”