Since bursting on to the scene at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Brazil 2007, Andrey Bukhlitskiy has shown the rest of the world what the experts always knew: that when it comes to soccer on sand, he is one of the finest goalkeepers on the planet.
Like their keeper, Russia have also been charting an upward course in these last few years, shouldering their way into the global elite. After an all-too-brief debut appearance in the global finals in 2008, the Sbornaja kicked on to the last eight at Marseille 2008 and Dubai 2009 before finally fulfilling their rich promise and landing the title at Ravenna 2011.
In their capacity as reigning world champions, the Russians are now the team to beat in Tahiti 2013, not that the extrovert Bukhlitskiy is too concerned about that.
“You’d expect that," he told FIFA.com. "We are the holders, after all, and everyone wants to beat us, although it seems strange to be talking about pressure in a place as quiet and laid-back as this. It is inevitable, I suppose, and though it’s all new to us, that doesn’t really matter. It’s a positive kind of pressure because it stops us from relaxing. It makes us focus for every game, every single one.”
The beach soccer world has now grown used to the 31-year-old’s unusual match rituals, such as slapping himself in the face to sharpen his concentration, just as it has to seeing him exert his influence as one of the team’s leaders, a status he is nevertheless is keen to reject.
“There are no leaders here,” said the adidas Golden Glove winner from two years ago. “There’s just a great group of players ready to play important roles. One day it might be my turn and the next someone else’s. Maybe in the past we depended on some players more than others, but that’s not the case now. We win and lose as a team.”
Forthright and unpredictable, to the point that 99 times out of 100 he would rather watch a good film than a football match, Bukhlitskiy was unequivocal when asked to name his contenders for the title. “Everyone,” came the blunt reply.
Giving his reasons for refusing to rule anyone out, he said: “You might go into a tournament as favourites and then everything changes in just one game. Beach soccer has become very competitive and the best teams always make it to the World Cup. Anyone can beat anyone, as we found out in 2007. A lot of praise was coming our way but then we lost to Mexico, who were also making their tournament debut, and that cost us a place in the quarters.”
Asked about Russia group-phase rivals in Tahiti, Bukhlitskiy was typically frank. “We know Japan,” he said. “They’re very focused and they’ve got the Brazilian Moreira, who’s got special talent if you ask me. Paraguay beat Brazil, and that’s a warning we need to take note of. And I’ve never played against Côte d'Ivoire, though we’ll be getting the information we need on them.”
When talk turns back to Russia one last time, the outgoing keeper makes it very clear what his side’s objectives are in Tahiti: “Before, it was important for us to become champions because we felt we were close and couldn’t quite get there, and it’s just as important to us now because we know how it feels and we want to do it again. This team always wants to win. We’re enjoying a fantastic run of form and with our mindset being the way it is, we’re not contemplating any other result than lifting the trophy again.”