Reigning two-time world champions Russia have their sights making it three in a row at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Portugal 2015. Yet as coach Mikhail Likhachev is well aware, the Russians will have to fight all the way if they are to complete a hat-trick of titles.
“The biggest tournament in the beach soccer world is about to get under way,” exclaimed Likhachev, who was asked by FIFA.com what his side is hoping to achieve in Espinho.
“We hope to do just as well as we did at the last two World Cups,” he replied, before describing what he expects to see over the next ten days or so on the pitch at the Praia da Baia: “I think all the teams are going to produce a very high level of football and that the players are going to be on top form.”
The Russians arrived in Espinho on Monday and have already felt the sand under their feet, though this is not the first visit Likhachev has made to Portugal’s Costa Verde, as he explained: “I’ve been to Espinho twice before: the first time was for the official launch and the second for the tournament draw. I liked what I saw, though the most important thing is always what happens inside the stadium when the matches begin.”
Focused solely on the job in hand, Likhachev talked down Russia’s status as defending two-time champions: “We’re not the favourites. We’re just one of them.”
Sizing up the task ahead of them in Group D and their opening match on Friday, he added: “We have a very difficult group. Our main concern right now is Paraguay, and not just but they’re our first opponents, but because they’re the second-best team South America has produced in many years. We played against them at the last World Cup and we only won in extra-time. It’s absolutely vital we get off on the right foot.”
After that the Russians face two more teams their coach has every respect for: “Madagascar are an unknown quantity for a lot of people, but I’ve seen a lot of their matches and I know how strong they are. I wasn’t surprised to see them become African champions.
“We can’t forget Tahiti either. They surprised everyone two years ago and they’ve earned the right to be recognised as one of the best teams in the world. When you look at all that, you know it’s not going to be easy to get to the quarter-finals.”
Russia have arrived in Portugal full of confidence after winning the inaugural European Games title, though as their coach acknowledged, Portugal 2015 represents a completely different test of their abilities: “Winning that competition has given our players a boost, but the World Cup is the World Cup and what’s gone before counts for nothing. After all, the standard at the World Cup is much higher than at the European Games.”
Like everyone else, Likhachev is anxious to see how hosts Portugal will fare on home sand: “They’ve got a very strong team. Everyone knows that. There’s no question they’re one of the favourites for the title.”
Though he also rates Brazil, Italy and Spain as genuine candidates for the crown, the architect of Russia’s two world title wins would like nothing better than to see his side battle it out with the host nation for global beach soccer supremacy on 19 July.
“A final against Portugal would be perfect,” he said, signing off. “It’s a match beach soccer fans would remember for many, many years.”