Portugal head into the FIFA Futsal World Cup Brazil 2008 boasting a fine pedigree in the sport, though the Iberians' track record in itself would not be enough to place them among the favourites for the coveted title. That said, all it takes is a quick word with the coaches of their potential rivals here on Brazilian soil to underline the Selecção das Quinas' status as one of the world's strongest futsal nations. One of the clearest exponents of the kind of technical ability that makes Portugal such feared opponents is 23-year-old wide-player Ricardo Filipe da Silva Braga, better known as Ricardinho.
"We're going to try and repeat our performance at Guatemala 2000, when we achieved the historic feat of reaching the semi-finals," says the player, who is set to make his FIFA Futsal World Cup bow at Brazil 2008. Having missed out on Chinese Taipei 2004 through injury, the Benfica star had to watch from afar as his team were edged out by Spain and Italy, the eventual winners and runners-up respectively, in a desperately tough second group phase . "This time around we can't miss the opportunity to make it through the group phases. And I believe we're well capable of doing just that."
The Lusitanians' confidence going into the forthcoming showpiece will have been boosted by their displays at the last edition of the UEFA Futsal Championship, which took place in November 2007. Though the Portuguese just missed out on a podium place at the competition, which was played on home soil, they took world champions Spain to penalty kicks after a 2-2 semi-final draw. And although the Spaniards then went on to add another European crown to their collection; Ricardinho feels his side have no reason to fear their near neighbours.
"To be perfectly honest, I think that only Brazil are a cut above the rest of us. The Brazilian team were unlucky against Spain in recent World Cups. I think that Portugal are now a match for Spain, but in our last games against them we lacked coolness and composure at decisive times," explains the gifted goalscorer, before warning against the dangers of overconfidence. "Given the quality of world futsal nowadays, simply reaching the FIFA Futsal World Cup is quite a feat. Our plan is not to get too carried away before we even take the field, because that was exactly what put paid to our chances at previous World Cups."
For that reason, coach Orlando Duarte's charges are studiously avoiding any talk of a repeat appearance in the semi-finals, instead preferring to focus on first group-phase rivals Italy, Thailand, Paraguay and the United States. "The Italians are always very tough opponents, Thailand are improving a lot and the USA have a very strong forward line," says Ricardinho. "And we must also make sure we get the better of Paraguay. They're a team who have some great players at clubs in Spain and Italy but I still think we can beat them."
"We've got young players, a good team spirit and the individual quality that can make the difference. We've got all the right ingredients to go far, but we know we have to stay focused right from the start of every game," concludes the fleet-of-foot Encarnado. And while Ricardinho's note of caution may seem excessive, particularly given that Portugal appear well-placed to reach the latter stages, it serves to highlight the highly competitive and unpredictable nature of modern futsal. Roll on Brazil 2008...