Well in advance of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Ravenna/Italy 2011, experts in this variant of the game placed Russia among the favourites for the trophy. The East Europeans hit the headlines in European qualifying by eliminating the powerful Spanish, and the team coached by Mikhail Likhachev underlined their credentials in early August by winning the Euro Beach Soccer League.
Russia's form in Ravenna so far has served to confirm their status as a growing power in the game. Comfortable group stage victories over Nigeria, Tahiti and Venezuela saw them march into the quarter-finals, where they barely accelerated beyond cruising speed to see off Mexico. In their fourth appearance at the beach soccer finals, they are through to the last four for the first time.
“We're thrilled about reaching the semi-finals, especially as it's our first time. We've worked very hard to get this far," commented captain Ilya Leonov, interviewed by FIFA.com after the quarter-final victory. The 31-year-old, who has pulled on his country's colours in all four of their FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup appearances, is the team’s indisputable leader and driving force. He has four goals to his name at the tournament so far, including the vital opener against the Mexicans.
“Obviously, I'm delighted about the goal, but making the next round was much, much more important," Leonov said. “We want to keep getting better with every game. Our major strength is that we have a number of players capable of scoring at any time." The stats confirm that assertion, as Russia are the second-top scorers in Ravenna after Portugal with 25 goals.
The East Europeans are specialists when it comes to scoring from set plays such as corners, balls inbound (kick-ins and throw-ins) and free kicks. “We work very hard on these in training, and we keep devising new routines," the Russia captain revealed. “So we're delighted this very specific training and all our hard work is paying off now."
In the semi-finals, the Russians must deal with the unpredictability of El Salvador, comfortably the surprise team in Ravenna so far. Leonov and his men rate as overwhelming favourites, but the skipper warned his team-mates not to underestimate their opponents. “At the end of the day, anything can happen in beach soccer." Nevertheless, he made no secret of his team's ambition: “Naturally, we want the trophy now."
That would represent the crowning glory of Leonov's career. The man twice named Best Player in European qualifying is desperate for the ultimate success. “My biggest dream is to lift the World Cup trophy," he said with a broad smile. It is a dream which could well be fulfilled on Sunday.