Coaches with rivals in their sights
With the draw made and the countdown well underway to the FIFA Futsal World Championship Chinese Taipei 2004, the national coaches will now be able to focus their attention on their respective group phase opponents ahead of November's competition.
The strongest group in these championships has to be Group D, where Iran, Portugal, Argentina and Cuba will be battling it out for just two tickets to the next round. The finalists four years ago in Guatemala, Spain and Brazil, look to have an easier passage after being handed less complicated draws. Italy, another of the favourites, should also have a relatively smooth passage to the second stage.
However, the coaches are taking nothing for granted. The tacticians will be leaving no stone unturned in their quest for success as they try to find out as much about their opponents as possible before kick off.
Profile of the 16 qualifiers
Smooth passage for the defending champions
Spanish coach Javier Lozano seemed pleased with the draw after being pitted in Group A against what looks on paper to be very manageable opposition. Neither the hosts nor the African representative (Egypt or Mozambique) should cause undue problems for the Iberian outfit as they strive to retain their title. The battle to win the group will lie, in theory, between the holders and Ukraine, with previous results seeming to give the Spanish side the upper hand. The last time the sides met in a major competition was in the final of the 2001 European Championship, with Lozano's side carrying the day. Having said that, a lot can happen in three years.
"We're pleased with the draw we've been given, but I'm not sure about being drawn to play against Ukraine in our opening match. Without a doubt this game will decide the eventual winners of the group. It could work out to be a good thing if we win because we'll then be able to go into our other games in a more relaxed frame of mind," said the coach in the immediate aftermath of the draw.
No easy games in Group D
Portugal coach Orlando Duarte had a resigned look on his face after seeing his country's fate in the draw. "At first glance, it looks the toughest group of all. Iran and Argentina are two very good teams, while Cuba might be a slightly weaker outfit," he remarked. "The top two spots from Group D will definitely be decided between Portugal, Iran and Argentinal."
For the Lusitanians, it is a case of straight in at the deep end against Iran, before an equally daunting second game against the Albiceleste. Portugal's two opening opponents are the reigning champions from their respective confederations. "I don't know if it's a good or bad thing to begin with the toughest games. What I do know is that we have to be prepared to face the best if we intend to go far in this competition."
Iran and Argentina may be tricky opponents for Portugal, but at least they are known quantities. Not so the Caribbean side. "Cuba are the team that I know least about," admits the Portuguese coach. "The other two I know quite well. I've seen Iran play on numerous occasions, most recently against Brazil. As for Argentina, they've had the same group of players for three years now and they won't be changing their style of play or philosophy," he added.
"We're really fired up and as with every championship we enter, our goal is to go as far as possible in the competition," said Duarte, whose Portuguese side performed remarkably well to finish third behind Brazil and Spain at the last FIFA Futsal World Championship in Guatemala 2000.
"Iran and Argentina will be tough, but if we're on top of our game we could prove a handful for them too," says the coach, who also indicated that the Portuguese squad would be having a brief acclimatisation period in Macao before they go to Chinese Taipei in November.
Group C throws up some interesting ties
Group favourites Italy should not have huge difficulty getting past the first hurdle, though coach Alessandro Nuccorini is refusing to be complacent: "I think that along with Group D, our group is the most evenly balanced of them all. I honestly believe that this is the only one where all four teams have a chance of progressing. The games should be enthralling."
The Italian coach gave his initial assessment of the group to FIFA.com: "The USA are the CONCACAF champions, while Japan are a very respectable side that did really well against Iran in the Asian final. As for Paraguay, I know they are a very competitive bunch of guys and they have shown just how focused they will be at these championships.
"My team is very motivated and determined to do well here. I'm confident that they can get past the group phase," said Nuccorini, who has been at the helm of the Italian side since 1997.
The Italian tactician finished by talking of his hopes for the tournament to be played in Chinese Taipei between 21 November and 5 December: "This is a very important date for international futsal. I sincerely hope that we can offer an enjoyable spectacle to the world and that as a result more people will be attracted to the sport."