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On the 28th January, UEFA Futsal Euro 2014 kicks off. Europe’s finest futsal nations will compete over twelve days of intense competition to decide who will be crowned champions of Europe.Ten of the teams from 2012 have reached the finals again, with hosts Belgium and Holland replacing Serbia and Turkey. The favourites will be the same usual suspects; Spain, Russia, Italy and Portugal. Of course, in the two years since the last edition the squads will have changed; Veterans will have been moved on, to be replaced by new stars and those that remain will possess more experience.
Futsal fans can look forward to just under two weeks full of entertaining clashes and high level futsal. During the last Futsal EURO I was fortunate enough to be playing for a club in the main hosting city, Croatia’s capital Zagreb, and saw most of the games live. I am interested to see how the different teams have evolved since that championship. Unfortunately I won’t have the chance to attend this time due to my commitments with Baku United. However I will be watching as many games as possible on the TV and can’t wait for the tournament to commence. Here I give my opinions on the main challengers.
Three of Spain’s key players in their victory in Croatia two years ago have retired from international duty. Two of those are players who will go down in futsal history; Luis Amado and Kike Boned. Despite Spain’s depth of talent, especially in the goalkeeping position, these are irreplaceable and are a huge loss to the six times champions. The other is Alemao, who added a touch of magic to the side. The new players in the squad from 2 years ago are goalkeepers Rafa and Jesus Herrerro, defender José Ruiz, and wingers Pola (injured in 2012) and Raul Campos.
The task of replacing the influence of those legendary players, however, will fall mainly on the shoulders of those who shared the court with them last time. The present and future of Spain’s national team are, in my opinion, based on the ‘three amigos’; Sergio Lozano (Best Player in 2012), Lin and Miguelin. These three have the talent to decide games. All three are used to carrying a lot of responsibility, being key players in their clubs; FC Barcelona and El Pozo Murcia. If these three have good tournaments then I would expect Spain to win the title. Another player who will be very important is defender Carlos Ortiz. He has become one of the team’s leaders and currently is in great form.
Despite the development of those that remain, I repeat my belief that the players that have left are irreplaceable and this means Spain are a weaker force compared with the side that claimed victory in the final in Zagreb. In that game they were just seconds from losing to former champions Russia. Two years on Russia will again be the main threat to Spain’s domination of the competition but the question is will they go that one step further?
In the two years since the 2012 edition Russia has continued to nationalise Brazilians. Despite not participating in Europe’s international championship, Brazil’s influence will be felt with Azerbaijan, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Russia all opting to use Brazilian born players. What qualifies someone to be of a certain nationality can be debatedbut what is clear is that for this strategy to bring results, these players must integrate so that the home grown players don’t distinguish them as outsiders. This is easier if these players moved to the country at a young age, speak the language fluently and consider themselves citizens of their adopted country.
However if these players are not integrated properly it can cause tension and create a divide between the two groups of players. This appears to be the case with Russia. They have added two more Brazilians, Eder Lima and Robinho, to the three they had at the last EURO and this has upset some players. Goalkeeper Sergio Zuev retired from international duty after EURO 2012 and Dmitri Prudnikov followed him, apparently for the same reasons, after the 2012 World Cup. It is shame Russia has decided to go down this route because there are many excellent Russian born players and it has altered their distinctive style.
The loss of Zuev won’t be felt so much as he had already been replaced by the current World Goalkeeper of the Year, Gustavo. With Prudnikov it is a different story. He is one of the best futsal players in the world and had an excellent tournament in 2012, earning him a place in FutsalPlanet’s Team of the Tournament. He was also their leader and a calming influence on court. If itwasn’t for Prudnikov’s absence and the fact that there might not be a completely harmonious atmosphere within the squad I would have had Russia to take the title.
Italy is one of the other main challengers and, alongside Russia and Spain, the only other team to have their name inscribed on the trophy. With a league full of Brazilians they pioneered the idea of adopting Brazilians and a few years ago their whole squad was Brazilian born. However since Head Coach Roberto Menichelli took charge he has opted to use more players born in the country. The squad is now half born in Italy and half born in Brazil but most of these have been in Italy since they were young.
They have a strong side with key players Stefano Mamarrella, captain Gabriel Lima, Honorio and Saad Assis all world class. They have had consistent results in the competition, having finished in the top four of all eight editions with the exception of 2010. I believe they can reach the final but I don’t expect them to win. Even if they aren’t as strong as Spain, I believe they could beat them on their day. However, when they have faced the current champions in the past I have never got the impression they believed they could beat their Mediterranean neighbours. If they can overcome this mental block then they have an outside chance.
The final nation with realistic hopes of becoming champions is Portugal. They certainly don’t lack quality. Their squad includes the magnificent Ricardinho, alongside Falcao as the world’s most skilful player. They have three excellent pivots in Cardinal (recently returned from long term injury), Joel Quieros and Leitao. The pivot is often the fulcrum of a team’s attacking play and having three options here is a big advantage.Neither do they lack experience. Their captain and my former team-mate, Arnaldo, already has reached an incredible 175 caps. They are capable of beating anyone. However for them to have a chance I think that must start well in order to top their group ahead of Russia, avoiding facing both Spain and Russia in the knockout stages. I don’t think they are capable of putting in the two back to back performances needed to defeat these two heavyweights.
My nomination for the dark horse is Slovenia. Over the last few years they have been bringing a new generation through. They have many talented players as is common in this region. However what they have lacked compared to stronger nations is a league with investment to bring in foreigners and better tactical organisation. With several of their players now playing abroad, including experience of the Italian and Spanish leagues, I think they are ready to register their first ever points in the finals and qualify for the second round.
Enjoy the tournament!!
Group A: Belgium (hosts), Ukraine, Romania
Group B: Russia, Portugal, Netherlands
Group C: Italy, Azerbaijan, Slovenia
Group D: Spain (holders), Czech Republic, Croatia
Quarter-final 1 (3 February): Group A winner v Group B runner-up
Quarter-final 2 (3 February): Group A runner-up v Group B winner
Quarter-final 3 (4 February): Group C winner v Group D runner-up
Quarter-final 4 (4 February): Group C runner-up v Group D winner
Semi-final 1 (6 February): Quarter-final 1 winner v Quarter-final 3 winner
Semi-final 2 (6 February): Quarter-final 2 winner v Quarter-final 4 winner
Third-place play-off (8 February): Defeated team in semi-final 1 v Defeated team in semi-final 2.
Final (8 February): Winner semi-final 1 v Winner semi-final 2
*Winning teams highlighted in red
Group A Group B Group C Group D
Ukraine Russia Italy Spain
Romania Portugal Slovenia Croatia
Belgium Netherlands Azerbaijan Czech Republic
Quarter-final 1: Ukraine v Portugal
Quarter-final 2: Romania v Russia
Quarter-final 3: Italy v Croatia
Quarter-final 4: Slovenia v Spain
Semi-final 1: Portugal v Italy
Semi-final 2: Russia v Spain
Final: Portugal v Spain