Uzbekistan's gymnast-turned-keeper vows to bounce back
There were eight minutes left to play at the Coliseo Ivan de Bedout when Jose Maria Pazos Mendes, better known as Pulpis, decided to substitute goalkeeper Rustam Umarov. The Uzbekistan No1 took his seat on the bench and hung his head, clasping his hands behind it. With the clock fast ticking down, the Uzbeks trailed Portugal 4-1 in their third and final group-stage fixture. For all intents and purposes, their FIFA Futsal World Cup Colombia 2016 adventure was over and Umarov knew it.
"I was really angry about conceding those four goals. I wasn't able to help the team when I wanted to make the difference," the Almalyk shot-stopper told FIFA.com after the game. Considering these harsh words about his own display, the 31-year-old was obviously still reeling from what eventually ended as a 5-1 defeat. In the cold light of day, perhaps he will recognise that it was only his numerous saves – throughout the competition and their parting match – that allowed his country to cling to the hope of qualifying for the next round for such a long time.
Despite his anguish at the heavy loss, Umarov was not at all annoyed with his coach for having taken him off before the final whistle. The fact is that his withdrawal was certainly not down to any dissatisfaction with his performance, but rather to give his understudy Akmaljon Khazratkulov the chance to get his first taste of Futsal World Cup action.
Uzbekistan's Colombian campaign was the country's first at the global showpiece. This was something that Umarov, like all players, had dreamed of as a child and he will never forget the feeling of joy that came with achieving this dream "at the fourth time of asking, after three failed attempts to qualify." "Of course I'd have liked to have done better ," he went on, "but ultimately a point wasn't enough to go further."
An exceptional experienceThis point was secured against none other than the hosts and it owed a lot to the man whose team-mates call him Spider-Man on account of his agility and remarkable reflexes. The Uzbeks enjoyed a lot of great firsts in Colombia, but it is that 3-3 draw that will undoubtedly be remembered most fondly and vividly. "It was a wonderful moment for us. Personally speaking, I think I had a really good match," said the keeper, flashing his first smile of our interview.
The former CSKA Moscow custodian's memory was not deceiving him. A string of superb saves had Los Cafeteros on the brink of despair at times during that encounter and served to earn his side a share of the spoils. He was in equally inspired form for a long stretch against the Portuguese, as exemplified by the acrobatic way in which he denied Fabio Cecilio in a one-on-one after ten minutes.
In order to change direction so swiftly and pull off that save, Umarov first had to do the splits. This is a move he performs often and it is no coincidence, but rather a legacy from the years he spent doing artistic gymnastics during his childhood. The combination of the skills he learnt from that sport and his other passion has taken him extremely far – all the way to the finals of the Futsal World Cup.
The 5'9 (1.76m) keeper still has a photo of himself taking his first steps on a futsal court as a kid. He will take away several handfuls of equally symbolic snapshots from Colombia, but sadly not any conventional souvenirs: "We simply didn't have the time." Nevertheless, Umarov feels that he does have time on his side in terms of his prospects of gracing the biggest stage again. As he put it: "I'm 32, but I'm not ready to hang up my gloves just yet. I'm going to carry on giving my all in order to keep my place in the national team and feature at more tournaments like this one."