Never-say-die Poles eye World Cup return
It is the 40th and final minute of the FIFA Futsal World Cup Colombia 2016 European play-off first leg match between Poland and Kazakhstan, and the visitors from the shores of the Caspian Sea lead 1-0 through a fourth-minute strike from Serik Zhamankulov. Poland throw their players forward, putting Kazakhstan goalkeeper Higuita under enormous pressure and forcing him to parry a shot from Mikolaj Zastawnik behind.
Michal Kubik brings the ball back into play and finds captain Marcin Mikolajewicz unmarked in the middle of the penalty area. The man in Poland’s No10 shirt does not hesitate, firing a first-time right-footed shot into the bottom right-hand corner. The entire Azoty Arena in Szczecin erupts with delight. The Poles have scored a vital equaliser just 27 seconds before the final whistle.
Almost three weeks after this match, the goalscorer can scarcely believe what happened. “Scoring an equaliser in a match against an opponent as challenging as Kazakhstan, especially when there was so much at stake, at home, was truly amazing,” Mikolajewicz enthused in an interview with FIFA.com. “It was a priceless experience.”
Until the bitter end The result gives Poland a good starting point for Tuesday’s return leg. Despite trailing for much of the game, the 33-year-old striker refused to give up, later explaining: “The match lasts 40 minutes and every player with the eagle on their chest has to keep believing until the very end.” There is no doubt that the captain led by example.
Few predicted a 1-1 draw after the first leg. Many viewed Poland as outsiders when the draw was made, given that the Eastern European side last featured at a FIFA Futsal World Cup back in 1992 and have been unable to qualify for the UEFA Futsal Cup since 2001. Their form contrasts sharply with that of Kazakhstan. Although Brazilian coach Cacau’s side has not travelled to the FIFA Futsal World Cup since 2000, they finished third at continental level in February this year.
“We were told we didn’t have a chance and that we were going to be destroyed,” said Mikolajewicz when asked to recall the build-up to the first leg, “but we proved we can play at the highest European level.” Brimming with confidence, the Polish skipper issued a statement of intent to his team’s play-off rivals. “I think we still have a chance to win. Although Kazakhstan will be playing at home and are European Championship bronze medallists, I think they will be under immense pressure – and we might just surprise everyone.”
Role model for the next generation Like many of his contemporaries, Mikolajewicz started out playing the traditional version of the beautiful game, but contracted ‘futsal fever’ the first time he played the indoor variant around eight years ago. Since becoming part of the national team, he has pursued one goal: to take part in a FIFA Futsal World Cup. The FC Torun forward was ten years old when his country last stepped on to the world stage and, although he has never managed to quiz his 1992 heroes on the subject, he knows exactly what it means to feature at the sport’s biggest tournament.
“You don’t have to tell me how it would feel to play at a World Cup,” he said. “We’re aware of the importance of the event; we can sense it. I hope we can experience that atmosphere for ourselves in September.” The national team captain is determined to everything in his power to realise his dream. “I have to set a good example for our younger players, to show them we believe we can do it. It is just one match. Only 40 minutes stand between us and our dreams.”
While the first leg has clearly given Poland a major confidence boost, it also highlighted some problematic areas. “We definitely have to improve our effectiveness and defence,” Mikolajewicz reflected. “We weren’t at our highest level in those two aspects of the game in the first match. We need to work on that if we want to fight for our dreams.”
The word ‘dream’ is one Mikolajewicz uses frequently when talking about the upcoming encounter. Given the joy that was unleashed when he scored his goal and the final whistle sounded in the first leg, it is difficult to imagine what might happen if Poland qualify. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: the players with the eagle on their chest will fight until the very last second for their ultimate dream – and none more so than their captain.