For three years now, Spain have been the team to beat - and the
team to fear - on the world Futsal stage. Their reign stretches
back to 2004, when Javier Lozano guided the side to FIFA Futsal
World Championship glory in Chinese Taipei with a 2-1 victory over
Italy in the final.
The following year, it was Russia who fell at the last hurdle, as the Spaniards clinched the European title in Czech Republic with another 2-1 win. So, on the eve of the 2007 UEFA European Futsal Championship, it would be no exaggeration to paint the defending champions as the hot favourites to leave with the trophy once again.
Lozano may have recently stepped down after 15 years of loyal
service as coach and mentor, but the talent within the squad did
not disappear overnight. Since achieving global domination in Asia,
the make-up of the team has barely changed and new trainer Javier
Venancio Lopez has identified that as crucial to his stewardship.
"We're going to try to keep the continuity going with the
same core of players, plus a few little changes because naturally
you have to keep progressing," he told
FIFA.com a few weeks ago.
"Europe has moved on: Italy, Russia and Portugal all have potential and the competition is getting tougher and tougher at the international level. We can't allow ourselves to stand still."
As proof of stability, the world's best goalkeeper Luis Amado will continue to defy opponents between the posts, while fearsome forwards Andreu, Javi Rodriguez and Daniel will pose as an attacking threat as ever. Spain have been drawn in Group B alongside Serbia, Ukraine and Russia and they will settle for nothing less than top spot. Only the Russians seem capable of causing them trouble.
That said, it could easily be argued that first or second place in Spain's pool will count for little. Whoever they face in the semi-finals, the champions can expect to face a test of the highest order. Both Italy and Portugal can be found lurking in Group A and any list of the best Fustal teams on the planet would be incomplete without the European duo.
The Azzurri finished runners-up in Chinese Taipei in 2004 and came third in Czech Republic a year later, while the Portuguese will make up for any technical weaknesses with the raucous support they will enjoy from the local crowds. Of the two, Alessandro Nuccorini's Italians look slight favourites to come out on top and therefore avoid a meeting with Spain in the last four, but everything will surely depend on their opening-day showdown on 16 November.
That is set to be a fantastic game, and it could hardly be anything else given the excellent level of organisation behind the scenes. The tournament will be held in two venues in Porto and attendance records appear destined to tumble. With 5,000 places, the recently-built Multiusos Gondomar Coracao de Ouro is noticeably bigger than the 2,000-seater Pavilhao Desportivo Municipal de Santo Tirso, but both will be packed with fans swaying to the rhythms of the continent's finest.
Many talented players will be on show, of course, but expectation levels are particularly high around Ukraine striker Serhiy Koridze, top scorer at the same tournament in 2001 and 2003, and Italy's Sandro Zanetti, who netted more times than anyone else in the qualifiers.
Every last nut and bolt is in place, so all that remains now is
for the action to get started. All eyes will be on Spain, of
course, but for those worried that the competition may lack
suspense, consider this statistic for a minute - the mighty
Spaniards failed to defend their crown on the two previous
occasions they ruled Europe.
UEFA European Futsal Championship
16-25 November 2007 in Porto, Portugal
The top two teams in each group qualify for the semi-finals, with the Group A winners taking on the Group B runners-up and vice versa.