An overview of Guatemala 2000
Article courtesy of Footballasia.com
Those setting their sights on finishing in the top three of this tournament and claiming one of the Asian berths at the 4th FIFA Futsal World Championship in Guatemala are aiming for a rare chance to compete amongst the very best. However if, amid the euphoria of qualification, talk turns to challenging for glory it should be remembered that a measure of respectability will be a more realistic priority for Asia's representatives in Guatemala.
It seems so long ago that Iran, when playing at the '92 world championship, were poised to join the globe's futsal elite, but the sport saw brisker development in Europe and South America throughout the '90s. A reality check was delivered by Brazil at Espana '96 when the South Americans overcame first-half jitters to beat Iran 8-3.
In the four years that have elapsed since Espana '96, when Brazil won its third championship in three futsal world competitions, the sport has grown in leaps and bounds: futsal has become telegenic and exciting to watch, players are making money as professionals, and international competition abounds. The one constant that remains is Brazil's iron-grip on the world futsal throne, and the single objective on the minds of all contenders is vanquishing this as-yet-unchallenged king.
And who are the contenders? Current European champion Russia and runner-up Spain top the list. The Russians have in recent years recruited the core of club team Dina Moscow, re-named it Russia, and proceeded to terrorize the rest of the futsal world. Though Russia has yet to vanquish Brazil for an international title, Dina has beaten its Brazilian counterpart to take world club honors. Meanwhile, Spain considers its second-place finish in the '99 UEFA championship an unfortunate fluke, and has its sights set squarely on Brazil. The Spaniards won this challenge in the qualification round by bettering Ukraine, who were not just the only side to draw with Brazil at the '96 world finals but a victor over Brazil in Brazil last year.
Having received a mere five berths to this year's championship in Guatemala, Europe saw Ukraine and some of its other brighter stars crash and burn in the qualification process: Italy, Yugoslavia, and the Czech Republic. For Italy the tragedy was all the more intense, as the Azurri had come within a goal of equalizing with Brazil in the Tiger 5s final last December. So in addition to heavyweights Russia and Spain, Europe is also represented by second-tier nations Holland, Portugal, and Croatia.
And what of the rest of the world? Between Argentina and Uruguay, the two countries that represented South America four years ago, only the latter made it to the second stage of the tournament, where they suffered losses to Brazil and Ukraine. Still, futsal aficionados praised Uruguay's performance and fully expect the upcoming qualifiers to yield equally dangerous squads.
In the CONCACAF region the space taken up by the host nation, Guatemala, leaves room for two more. The USA, a fixture at all futsal tournaments thus far and a finalist in '92, has seen its status slip because it continues to field players with no futsal background. If this fact comes into play in the qualification round, the North American powerhouse could conceivably be left out of the party.
Africa continues to distinguish itself as futsal's biggest enigma. News about its qualification round has been hard to come by, although in Egypt it did field a respectable side at Espana '96. What the Egyptians lacked in tactical savvy they made up for in prodigious skills. And though there were not good enough to compete with the world-class likes of Spain and Ukraine, they did give Australia an 8-2 lesson in indoor soccer.
And what can we expect from the Aussies this time around? Though the team to qualify earliest for Guatemala, Australia needed only to get by OFC neighbors such as Vanuatu and the Cook Islands. In terms of true ability, Australia probably more or less ranks with Asia's second-tier countries: not as good as Iran but able to go head to head with Japan, Korea, Thailand and Kazakhstan.
And that brings us back to Asia. The challenge to Brazil is unlikely to be made by an Asian country, but the three that attend will hopefully create an impact in group play. You can count on Iran to once again establish Asia's benchmark in the global forum, while the other two teams will get a priceless taste of world-class competition.