Spain toppled as Italy triumph
© AFP

Spain have been the dominant force in European futsal for almost 20 years, winning six European championship titles since 1996 and the last four on the bounce. But this impressive winning streak came to a shuddering halt in Antwerp on Saturday when La Roja were beaten 4-3 by Russia after extra time in their semi-final clash.

The momentous defeat, the Iberians’ first to a fellow European team in nine years, means Spain are now neither world nor European champions for the first time since the year 2000. The Spanish ultimately had to make do with the consolation prize of third place following an 8-4 victory over Portugal in the play-off.

However, the European crown passed not to Russia but Italy. Gli Azzurri defeated the eastern Europeans 3-1 in the final, claiming a second continental title to go with their maiden success in 2003. The triumph is all the more remarkable given the Italians’ disastrous start with a 3-2 defeat to Slovenia in their opening game. But the eventual champions improved with every passing match as they thrashed Azerbaijan 7-0, beat Croatia 2-1 and overcame Portugal 4-3 to reach the final.

Top two meet in semis
Sergei Skorovich’s Russians ended up losing their second straight UEFA EURO final despite going into the match as favourites. The Russians were undefeated in qualifying and at the finals but surrendered that proud record in the last match, where the energy-sapping last-four clash with the Spanish clearly took a physical toll.

Pre-tournament favourites Spain emulated the Russians in that both drew a group match, the Iberians 3-3 against Croatia and the eastern Europeans 4-4 against Portugal. The Spanish still topped their section and sealed their last-four berth with a 4-0 quarter-final victory over Slovenia.

Only one previous UEFA Futsal EURO failed to feature a clash between arch-rivals Spain and Russia. In 1996, 2005 and 2012 the Iberians beat their long-term foes in the final, and also knocked the Russians out in the course of the tournament in 2001, 2007 and 2010. But it was finally to be Russia’s turn this year. Their Brazilian-born striker Eder Lima finished as the tournament’s top scorer on eight goals, ahead of Spain’s Fernandao on five and Gabriel Lima of Italy on four.

Starting field of 12
Twelve teams came to Belgium on 28 January to contest the continental championship, with top trio Spain, Russia and Italy joined by previous finalists Ukraine and Portugal.

The teams were assigned to four groups of three with two places in the last eight up for grabs in each section. It was at all times a close and evenly-matched affair as evidenced by the fact no team proved capable of winning both their group matches, and only the Netherlands finished with no points at all, although the men in orange were drawn into a horror group with Russia and Portugal.

Favoured four Spain, Russia, Portugal and Italy all upped their game and prevailed in the quarter-finals; the quartet also made it to the last eight at the FIFA Futsal World Cup Thailand 2012. At that tournament the Spanish took the silver medal after losing the final 3-2 after extra time to Brazil, and Italy claimed bronze with a 3-0 victory over Colombia.

Road to Belgrade 2016
The indoor version of the world’s favourite sport is demonstrably gaining momentum and significance all over the globe. The stars and heroes of the 11-a-side game fully appreciate this trend. No less a figure than Neymar of Barcelona, a cert to feature for Brazil as they go for FIFA World Cup™ glory on home soil later this year, revealed his continuing passion for futsal in a UEFA.com interview.

"I always loved to play, but unfortunately I had to stop to progress on the football pitch. Futsal helps a lot because you need to think quickly. Now I'm playing in Europe there's less space [than in Brazilian football] so you need to think quicker. Futsal is a more dynamic game, so it's helped me a lot with that."

The 22-year-old is of course focused on his club duties and the global showdown in Brazil starting in June, but the stars of the indoor game can now afford a short pause for breath. However, qualifying for the next continental showdown two years from now in Serbian capital Belgrade begins soon. And that tournament comes with the added incentive of a possible ticket to the FIFA Futsal World Cup 2016.