After an incredible regular season in which they won two of the four events and finished runner-up in a third, Russia were favourites to book their tickets for the beaches of Copacabana in November. And yet after their opening match in Marseille, which resulted in a shoot-out loss to Spain, their chances were looking slim. Nikolay Pisarev's men took the match of the day on Thursday by the scruff of the neck, however, brushing Switzerland aside to make it through to the semi-finals of the event and consequently to the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2007.
After the first half, though, things were looking bleak in the Russian camp. Switzerland were on form and had a 2-0 lead under their belts, while the top-ranked EBSL team looked like it simply was not their day. Even their ebullient keeper Andrey Bukhlitskiy seemed to be off his game.
The team talk at the break must have dramatic, as this turned out to be the archetypal game of two halves. All of a sudden, the Swiss found it impossible to hit the target, while the Russians' counter attacks all seemed to find the net. By the final whistle, the scoreline read 8-2 in favour of Russia. "I'm totally at a loss to explain what happened here," admitted dejected Swiss forward Stephen Meier. "We were right in the game, and then all of a sudden nothing. We're really going to have to steel ourselves mentally to give it our all in the last chance bracket."
The Russians, of course, were in far better spirits. "All you have to do is look at our results throughout the season and you'll see that we deserved to qualify," said satisfied coach Pisarev. "This is a great day for Russian beach soccer. I know that we can go to Rio full of ambition." With the tournament's top scorer Egor Shaykov, currently on seven goals, to bolster their attack, there is no doubt that the Russians will be looking to sign off the European season with another stage win.
Eric Cantona's French team will have a few words to say about that, however. Les Bleus were the only team to collect maximum points in the group stage, strolling past Italy two days ago before choosing to rest some of their regulars and yet still recording another relatively comfortable 5-3 win over Portugal.
The French were never behind and certainly gave the home crowd much to cheer, and Russia - their opponents in the last four - much to think about. Portugal will contest the other semi-final against their neighbours and fierce local rivals Spain.
On Friday, though, the Superfinal will turn its attentions to the last chance bracket quarter-finals. The stakes could hardly be higher, with the winners of the bracket booking their ticket for Rio. Italy will face a tough Hungarian outfit, while Switzerland will have to drag themselves up off the floor for a central European derby against Austria. Ukraine versus Poland, who finished seventh in the regular season, promises to be the closest match of the round, with the teams having met twice in previous FIFA Beach Soccer World Cups - Ukraine emerged victorious in 2005, while the Poles gained revenge a year later.
EuroBeachSoccer League 2007
Superfinal Marseille (France)
The day's results
RUS 8-2 SUI
FRA 5-3 POR
France, 6 pts *
Portugal, 3 pts *
Italy, 0 pts
Spain, 5 pts *
Russia, 3 pts *
Switzerland, 0 pts
* Qualified for the semi-finals and also for Rio de Janeiro 2007
Last chance bracket - first round
BUL 2-7 AUT
UKR 3-1 EST
TUR 6-7 NOR
HUN 4-2 ROM
Friday 23 August
Last chance bracket - quarter-finals (from 14h30 onwards)
Switzerland - Austria
Italy - Hungary
Poland - Ukraine
Germany - Norway