Brazil, famous for its endless beaches and five World Cup titles, is almost everyone's favorite to repeat as champion when the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup begins tomorrow.
Sixteen nations -- from the US to the Solomon Islands -- will compete for the crown on Rio de Janeiro's legendary Copacabana sands.
Largely credited with inventing the beach variation of the game, Brazilians have won 10 of the 12 championships staged annually since 1995 -- nine of them on the country's beaches. And few are betting against them now.
"There can be no question that Brazil is the home of beach soccer," FIFA said on its Web site. "Brazil are red-hot favorites to retain the crown" they won last year.
But the days are gone when Brazil had a lock on the title and featured a show-time squad of retired World Cup all-stars such as Zico, Junior and Edinho. Even Romario, an ardent fan who played in the 2005 tournament, won't be on the team for this World Cup.
Originally organized as the Beach Soccer World Championship, the tournament at first was administered by Beach Soccer Worldwide of Spain, with FIFA's endorsement. Brazil hosted and won the inaugural championship and went on to win eight of the next 10, with a surprise victory by Portugal in 2001.
But in 2005, FIFA assumed control of the tournament, renamed it the Beach Soccer World Cup and staged it in Rio de Janeiro. France beat Portugal in a penalty shootout to win the title while Brazil finished third.
Brazil rebounded last year, beating Uruguay in the final of a tournament that had grown to 16 nations.
Over the past decade, beach soccer -- a five-man game divided into three 12-minute periods on a pitch slightly longer than a basketball court and about twice as wide -- has evolved from a recreational sport to a global industry, propelled by international stars such as Brazil's Junior Negao, Portugal's Alan and Madjer and Spain's Amarelle.
Its popularity "has helped to expand television coverage to large audiences in over 170 countries worldwide, making beach soccer one of the fastest growing professional sports in the world and converting it into a major showcase for international commercial opportunity," FIFA said.
Next year will be the first year the world championship will not be staged in Brazil, but rather Marseille, France, with the 2009 event slated for Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
This year, Brazil is led by striker Benjamin Pereira da Silva, better known simply as Benjamin. With over 300 goals, he trails only Nenem among Brazil's career scoring leaders. Veteran Junior Negao remains a cornerstone of the defense.