Just eight years ago Russia were virtually unknowns in the world of beach soccer yet, after a truly astonishing period of development, the eastern Europeans are now firmly established among the game’s elite.
The disappointment of failing to reach both the 2005 and 2006 editions of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup has been replaced by the confidence that comes with qualifying for every tournament since 2007. Russia ended up ninth in that maiden outing on the world stage and recorded sixth-and seventh-placed finishes at the next two competitions.
What is more, at the most recent edition of the global showpiece in 2011, the team exceeded all expectations and won each of their six games en route to taking the title.
“I’m happy to have a team like this, a team in which all 12 players have mastered the basics, know our system and lack for nothing quality-wise,” said Russia coach Mikhail Likhachev after his side’s victorious Ravenna 2011 campaign. “This is how a team sport should be.”
His pride was understandable given the manner in which his side inflicted a 12-8 defeat on powerhouses Brazil, the South American giants' first ever loss in normal time at a FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup.
Russia must now be firmly among the favourites to lift the trophy at the forthcoming tournament. Likhachev still has the majority of his title-winning squad available to him, including key players Ilya Leonov and Andrey Bukhlitskiy, who respectively won the adidas Golden Ball and adidas Golden Glove in Italy two years ago. With Alexey Makarov and livewire winger Dmistri Shishin in their ranks as well, Russia are well equipped to go all the way once more.
The secret to Russia’s sensational ascent is both simple and logical: teamwork and togetherness. “Our style doesn’t just require the strikers to be in a position to score goals, but all of us,” explained Shishin. “I think that was the decisive factor in our success.” Indeed, after taking the world crown in Italy, Russia were widely described as a well-oiled machine, whose physical strength and consistency were crucial components.
However, recent events have shown that even the reigning world champions cannot afford to ease up, after they surprisingly lost to Poland during the European Zone qualifying tournament for Tahiti 2013. Although the defeat was of little consequence in the end, as Russia went on to reach the final, they again suffered a setback when losing to Spain.
Rematch with Brazil?
In Tahiti, Russia will begin with what, on paper at least, look like winnable encounters against Japan, Paraguay and Côte d'Ivoire in Group D. It is only the Africans’ second tournament participation following their elimination in the group stage at Dubai 2009, while the South Americans are competition debutants.
Japan appear likely to prove the most troublesome opponents, having featured at every FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup so far, recording their highest finish of fourth in 2005. Not that Russia will be underestimating anyone at Tahiti 2013, especially as any defeat will likely be much more damaging than their losses during qualifying.
“We’re not where we want to be yet,” said Egor Eremeev. “We want to win everything there is to be won. We’re a young team and can still improve.”
Intriguingly, a glance at the fixture list reveals that a rematch of the 2011 title decider against A Seleção could happen as early as the quarter-finals. If the upward trend in Russia’s beach-soccer development is to continue, that would be a stern test of their credentials. Indeed, surely the only way to improve on being crowned world champions is to successfully defend their throne?