Two weeks ago, they were an unknown quantity, not noted for their beach soccer prowess and obliged to toil under the fierce sun in Athens to win a place among the European elite for the first time in their history. Having done just that, Nikolay Pisarev's Russians are now clearly on the march as they lead the way in the European Beach Soccer League (EBSL) 2007 after dominating the first event in San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy.
"This has been an extraordinary performance for us and I hope it will be the first in a long series of good results in this league," enthused Pisarev, following his team's 4-3 victory over Portugal in the final on Sunday 15 July.
Despite going 2-0 down after just two minutes, the side boasting the tournament's top player, Egor Shaykov, never let their heads drop as the Portuguese armada threatened to put the result beyond doubt. With the revelation of the weekend, Andrey Bukhlitskiy, in the kind of form that earned him the Best Goalkeeper vote, the Russians made Madjer and Co pay for their clumsy display and drove on to a fully-deserved win.
"If I had to underline just one thing my team did well, it would be their ability to always press forward and put pressure on their opponents," added Pisarev. In the Portuguese camp, meanwhile, captain Hernani found defeat difficult to swallow. "It ought to be impossible for a team new to Group A to draw level with us when we're leading 2-0," he said. "I have a lot of respect for Russia as they're a very good team, but it's unacceptable for us to have lost this final." He and his colleagues will no doubt be thirsty for revenge when the continental elite pitch up in Portimao next week.
Portugal were not the only team to succumb, of course, and what made Russia's success all the more unexpected was that they managed to find top gear right from the start. France may have finished third at the last FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, but they slumped to a 4-1 loss to the debutants, finding it impossible to play their natural game against their opponents' stunningly effective defensive tactics. The following day, it was Switzerland's turn to taste defeat as Russia registered a 5-4 result, having at one point led 4-0.
The Swiss are also new at this level, even though the discipline has deeper roots there. They ultimately had plenty to be enthusiastic about themselves after taking third place with a 5-3 triumph over Italy. Just behind the Italians in the standings, France bounced back from their opening-day setback to record a 7-6 extra-time victory over Spain, before putting the Czech Republic to the sword in a 10-2 rout that leaves them fifth overall.
At the bottom of the table lie Spain, whose failure to get going
was every bit as shocking as Russia's debut win. With Amarelle
finding the back of the net on eight occasions, the reigning
European champions had the tournament's top scorer in their
ranks, yet they seemed to be suffering from fraught nerves as they
lost all three of their encounters in extra-time: 5-4 to
Switzerland, 7-6 to France and 5-4 against Poland. After such a
calamitous start, Joaquin Alonso's charges must find a way to
reverse their fortunes before the EBSL 2007 draws to a close on
their own turf in Majorca.
Euro Beach Soccer League 2007
San Benedetto del Tronto tournament
Friday 13 July
ESP 4-5 a.e.t. SUI
FRA 1-4 RUS
POR 5-4 POL
ITA 4-2 CZE
Saturday 14 July
ESP 6-7 a.e.t. FRA (play-off)
POL 5-6 CZE (play-off)
SUI 4-5 RUS (semi-final)
POR 7-2 ITA (semi-final)
Sunday 15 July
ESP 4-5 a.e.t. POL (match for 7 th place)
FRA 10-2 CZE (match for 5 th place)
SUI 5-3 ITA (match for 3 rd place)
RUS 4-3 POR (Final)
Best player: Egor Shaykov (RUS)
Best goalkeeper: Andrey Bukhlitskiy (RUS)
Top scorer: Amarelle (ESP), 8 goals
FIFA Fair-Play award: Amarelle (ESP)
The next tournament takes place in Portimao, Portugal, between 19 and 21 July. The top six teams in the overall ranking of the four EBSL 207 events qualify for the Superfinal in Marseille, where they will compete for the four available tickets to Rio de Janeiro 2007. The seventh- and eighth-placed sides enter the 'Last Chance' Bracket with the teams from Group B who were eliminated in Athens. The winner of that competition also earns a berth at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup.