“It crossed my mind before the play-off with Poland. I thought: ‘I can’t miss out on this World Cup, not in the land of Higuita!’. And I’m sure the people of Colombia will be supporting Kazakhstan because of my nickname.”
Those words belong to Kazakhstan’s Brazilian-born goalkeeper, Leonardo De Melo Vieira Leite, a.k.a. “Higuita”, an alias given to him in honour of the legendary Colombian custodian Rene Higuita.
A crucial figure in his adopted country’s qualification for Colombia 2016, where they will make their second FIFA Futsal World Cup appearance, the Kazakh shot-stopper told FIFA.com that there is a very good reason behind his moniker.
“Obviously, I owe my nickname to him,” he said, in reference to the flamboyant former Cafetero keeper. “I kept goals when I was a boy, but I liked to use my feet outside the box and take risks, and my hair was long too. So everyone started saying, ‘Higuita this, Higuita that’. It’s been with me since the age of five and I like the comparison.”
“Higuita” turned five on 6 June 1991, a year after his Colombian idol burst on to the global scene at the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™, where he caught the eye both with his penchant for playing the ball out with his feet and for his flowing, black, curly locks.
“I started to follow him after getting the nickname, and he became one of my idols,” said the Kazakh star, who is now 30 and wears his hair short. “Some people say that I’m another Rogerio Ceni, because I score goals, but I play the game like Higuita. I hope I get the chance to meet him at the World Cup.”
Futsal of the future
That ability to use his feet has led to “Higuita” occupying a key tactical role in the Kazakhstan side, which is coached by Cacau, who also hails from Brazil. “Futsal is a dynamic sport,” explained the custodian. “My team plays a very offensive game and I have to be part of that system, which is why I take shots, provide assists and even score the odd goal or two.”
One of the most vital of those goals came against the Poles in the second leg of the European play-offs. Following a 1-1 draw in the first leg, the Kazakh keeper scored the opener in the return, setting his side on the road to an emphatic 7-0 victory that secured them a world-finals place for the first time since Guatemala 2000.
Though the term “flying goalkeeper” is becoming increasingly common in the game, the player felt his side is playing a different game to everyone else: “Every team puts an outfield player in goal when they need the keeper to step into attack, but we don’t do that. My role is different, which is why I say that we play ‘futsal of the future’. You see more and more goalkeepers playing with their feet, rather than outfield players coming on to replace them when necessary.”
World Cup dreams
Revealing how he found his way to Kazakhstan, “Higuita” said: “I was looking for a future for my family.” Eleven-a-side football was his game until the age of 16, when he was told that he was too short at 5’11 (1.80m) to keep goal. It was then that he turned to futsal.
“In 2009 I signed for Astana-Tulpar, the country’s second-biggest team, and two years later I joined AFC Kairat Almaty, the biggest,” he explained. The move was a shrewd one, with “Higuita” winning a string of national and international titles with his second club, among them two UEFA Futsal Cup crowns and an Intercontinental Futsal Cup.
He described his decision to take out Kazakh nationality as a “logical” step, after which he became a leading figure in the national team, his stature rising to such an extent that coaches and journalists named him the world’s best goalkeeper in 2015.
He achieved another landmark at the start of this year, helping Kazakhstan take third place at the inaugural UEFA Futsal EURO. “We’re not the most entertaining side, but we each know what we have to do and when. That’s how we strung wins together, built our confidence and reached the World Cup, where we hope to go far.”
Just how far? “To the semi-finals,” came the answer. Contemplating their opening game at Colombia 2016, against Argentina, the naturalised keeper said: “They’re one of the five best teams in the world. We’ll need to take just as close a look at them as they will at us.”
Costa Rica and Solomon Islands will provide their next opponents, both of whom will be dangerous, in his opinion: “They’ve played at the last few World Cups and they’ve got the experience we lack. We’re not an inferior side, though.”
Signing off, “Higuita” said: “Kazakhstan has fallen in love with futsal. It’s a very important sport now, and I’ve got no doubt that the whole country will come to a halt to watch our games in Colombia. That will give us a lot of positive energy.”