“This is the right time for Argentina. We’ve got a squad with some very good young players alongside some more experienced hands who’ve seen it all before. In the last few years we’ve also achieved a stature that we need to maintain at the World Cup. That’s why I feel we can’t just turn up there and play it by ear. We have to finish among the top four.”
The words are those of Argentina defender Leandro Planas, and they carry a weight of their own. Now 36, the Albiceleste stalwart is set to make history at Thailand 2012 by becoming the first player to appear at five FIFA Futsal World Cups, his potential competitors for that distinction having all retired from the international game.
Only four players have racked up more futsal world finals matches than Planas’ total of 24: Manoel Tobias (31 matches), Javi Rodriguez (29) and Fininho (27), legends who have all hung up their shoes now, and Falcao, who has played 25 FIFA Futsal World Cup games and counting and is regarded by many as the sport’s greatest player of all time.
Planas, a scorer of six goals in the finals, is the only member of that select group who has yet to win the world title, his best placing coming at Chinese Taipei 2004, where Argentina finished fourth. That record is something he aims to put right sooner rather than later, as he told FIFA.com: “I’d give anything to win the title because it’s the pinnacle. I couldn’t think of a better way to end my world finals career.”
Closing the gap
As he went on to explain, the Boca Juniors defender has very good reason to be optimistic about Argentina’s chances: “I returned home at the end of 2011 after 15 years in Europe and was pleased by what I saw. They’ve got five or six very good, established young players over there, but there are one or two here who could easily make it in European futsal. The fact we won the qualifiers, in Brazil and against all the odds, also shows you what kind of shape this team is in right now. There’s no point in hiding away. We need to make the most of this.”
Planas’ belief is also fuelled by the ground Argentina and the rest of the world have made up on Brazil and Spain, the winners of all six of the FIFA Futsal World Cups held to date: “They’re still the best, but since 1996 the teams behind them, like Russia, Paraguay, Iran, Italy, Portugal and us, have closed the gap on them an awful lot. They won’t find any game easy.”
Argentina face Italy in the group phase. Having spent many years playing in the highly regarded Italian league, Planas knows exactly what he and his team-mates can expect when the two sides meet.
“They’ve gone through a big change,” he explained. “Before, they just used to line up with Brazilians on Italian passports, but now half the squad has to be made up of players born in the country. Even so, they’re still very organised, they make a living from the game and they’ll be dangerous. One of the two of us should win the section.”
So what of the two other teams drawn into Group D? “I haven’t played against Australia since 1996, and I’ll be honest and say I don’t know anything about Mexico,” came the answer. “Our coaching staff is professional, though, and there’s no doubt we’ll be studying both teams in depth. Argentina has never had the luxury of underestimating anyone and we won’t be starting now.”
Though Planas intends to carry on playing for a while yet before moving into coaching, Thailand 2012 will be his last world finals. Yet as he confirmed, there is no question of him easing off on his swansong:
“I’ve played for a lot of years in a lot of teams and with a lot of team-mates, but I’ve always been committed to giving my all for the national side. That’s why I’m looking on this tournament just the same as the ones before, with a lot of pride and gratitude for a sport that is my passion.”