If he had not forged a successful sporting career for himself, Ilya Leonov has no doubt about what sphere he would have moved into: due to his compassionate disposition, he would have become a policeman, fireman or border guard. Becoming a doctor was not an option, however, because he lacked the manual dexterity required.
His feet, though, are a different story. With his feet, he can make a ball do magical things on sandy beaches, and he has generated countless moments of joy for Russian fans. As captain of Russia’s formidable beach soccer team, his name is associated with one of the sport’s most remarkable success stories.
It all started 11 years ago. At the time, he played football, even reaching the Russian second division at one point, and he dabbled a little in futsal. “Up until 2005, we didn’t know anything about beach soccer,” admitted Leonov, in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “A few ex-players put a team together that trained at Serebryany Bor beach, in Moscow. I was one of the youngest, so I fitted into the team well, because someone had to take care of all the hard, physical work!” the 36-year-old defender added with a grin.
Subsequently, the Russian Football Union started to provide crucial support, and a number of new professional teams began to emerge, trips abroad became more frequent, and trophies were eventually lifted. “It was our systematic approach that brought us success,” said the two-time FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup winner (at Ravenna 2011 and Tahiti 2013), who was also part of the Russia side that finished third at Portugal 2015.
“That wasn’t the only factor; it was one of many, such as taking part in World Cup qualifying matches, more clubs being formed, and high-quality foreigners being invited to play. Russian players really improved by training and competing with those foreign players.”
Aiming ever higher
Despite his numerous achievements in the game, Leonov’s thirst for success has not yet been quenched. The FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Bahamas 2017 is scheduled to take place next summer, and the Russians are keen to make up for their slip-up at Portugal 2015.
“I must admit that we let our emotions get the better of us in our semi-final,” he explained. “We spent a lot of time discussing the referee’s decisions and we focused too much on that. When we watched the match back, we could see that the decisions he made were quite normal. We have to concentrate more on the game itself.”
To earn the chance to redeem themselves in the Bahamas, he and his team-mates will need to negotiate the tricky European Zone qualifying tournament that kicks off on 2 September in Jesolo, Italy. There, 28 competing nations will be divided into seven groups, with the four teams in each group playing each other once.
Being named captain of my country was an incredible feeling.
The top two sides in each section and the two third-placed teams with the best record will advance to the second stage, involving four pools of four, from which the four winners will move on to the semi-finals of the tournament and seal a spot at Bahamas 2017. The identity of the champions will be known on 11 September.
“It’s a very difficult tournament,” said Leonov, the current player-coach of Lokomotiv Moscow and an admirer of beach soccer greats such as Madjer, Amarelle, Alan and Benjamin. “We have to ensure we’re among the best four teams, and so we have to be looking to win our first six matches. Of course we want to impress the fans with an irresistible style of play, but the reality is that the results are what matter most. Germany will be our toughest opponents in the first group stage. It’s more difficult to gauge the level of Kazakhstan and Norway; we’ll have to wait and see what they bring to the tournament.”
If they were to emerge victorious in Jesolo, not only would they book their berth at the World Cup, but they would also have the honour of equalling Spain and Portugal’s record of five victories in the tournament. Leonov is anxious that the team maintain their focus, however. “First, we have to concentrate on qualifying. Obviously we’d love to become one of the most successful teams in Europe, but we need to qualify first before thinking about anything else.”
And what about the style adopted by Russia? “Our style involves discipline, commitment, good physical training, team chemistry and self-confidence,” said the skipper. “It helps that in the Russian League, which I think is the strongest in the world, you see a real mix of different styles, due to the high number of foreigners who play here.”
The level of excellence attained by the Russians is not easy to maintain, especially in a country where weather conditions do not necessarily lend themselves to continually playing at the beach. Consequently, there is even more experimentation with futsal.
“In Moscow we don’t have a covered stadium and so in the winter we have to move inside and play on synthetic pitches, just to make sure we keep things ticking over,” he said. “And so we end up playing futsal. The tactics are similar to beach soccer, but there are definitely certain technical differences.”
After more than a decade with the national team, during which he has landed two Beach Soccer World Cups and individual accolades in Russia, beach soccer has given everything to Leonov. “Being named captain of my country was an incredible feeling. Beach soccer has also enabled me to meet so many interesting people. I actually got to see Maradona, Zidane, Rooney, Messi, Xavi and Iniesta with my own eyes! I’m very happy that everything has worked out this way,” said the Moscow native with pride.
But he is still hopeful of adding one more prestigious winners’ medal to his display cabinet before bringing the curtain down on an exceptional career. “I’m 36, but I still have a desire to become the best player in the world. Madjer was 39 when he stood out so much at the 2015 World Cup in Portugal. But lifting team trophies is the most important thing, in my opinion; if we win in the Bahamas, and I’m a part of it, individual awards won’t be far away."