Bukhlitskiy keeps Russian tradition
What is it about Russia and goalkeepers? The country has given its two most popular sports arguably their greatest all-time No1s; Vladislav Tretiak, the netminder in the International Ice Hockey Federation's Team of the Century, and Lev Yashin, who made FIFA's World Team of the 20th century.
Beach soccer is one of the fastest-growing sports in Russia, and while its infancy may render talk of an all-time greatest keeper premature, discussion over the current nonpareil invariably leads to one conclusion: Andrey Bukhlitskiy.
He was head and shoulders above any of his positional counterparts in Europe last season, and ensured Nikolai Pisarev's team conceded the fewest number of goals during the group stage of Rio de Janeiro 2007; this despite making two of their three appearances against the eventual finalists, Brazil and Mexico.
Bukhlitskiy has evidently carried this resplendent form into the fourth edition of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup. After Russia lost 5-3 to Argentina in their opener, Cameroon and United Arab Emirates found the 26-year-old impregnable, with his successive clean sheets - only the third and fourth in the competition's history - crucial in smoothing his team's path into the quarter-finals.
The secret behind Russia's conveyor belt of outstanding goalkeepers is simple, according to Bukhlitskiy. "In Russia, it's all about stopping the other team from scoring," he explained. "This is our first objective and then we concentrate on scoring ourselves. So that's why we have a lot of quality goalkeepers, in football, in ice hockey, in beach soccer... it's all the same mindset."
Next up for Russia are Brazil, competing for a third straight world title, riding a remarkable 70-game unbeaten run, but nonetheless concerned about undoing Bukhlitskiy. "I have the utmost respect for him," said Mao, his opposite number in the Seleção goal. "He has all the qualities required in a goalkeeper.
"He's considered to be the best in the world. He was almost unbeatable last year when we played Russia. It finished up 2-2 before we won on penalties, and he will make winning very difficult for us on Thursday."
Bukhlitskiy does not revel in the personal acclaim he received for his role in that titanic battle during Rio de Janeiro 2007. Instead, he laments a result which sealed Russia's elimination. "Playing well is only satisfying if we win," he shrugged. "We lost. That's all there is to it."
Defeat is also something Russia suffered in their Marseille 2008 curtain-raiser. "We messed up in our first game. It meant we had to win our next two games, and we've done that," Bukhlitskiy continued. "We're very happy but we have a very big game coming up. ."
Helping Russia realise this dream would also surely propel Bukhlitskiy towards the pre-eminent position in the future pantheon of beach soccer goalkeepers.