“It has become something of a curse for the Ukrainian team.” Five major futsal tournaments in the last six years and Ukraine have crashed out at the quarter-finals in each and every one of them. As Mykhailo Grytsyna reflected, that record has become a bit of a burden.
Despite two penalty shoot-out defeats amongst those last-eight losses, the way they crashed out of the UEFA Futsal EURO 2016 in February could arguably rank as the most gut-wrenching and dramatic. Having gone behind early to hosts Serbia, Mykhailo’s brother Mykola had drawn them level. After rattling the woodwork three times over the course of the match, extra time looked a certainty, only for the home side to volley home with 0.3 seconds left on the clock.
It was a harsh introduction to top level competition for the pair, who were gracing their first tournament in the yellow of their homeland, and they will be carrying its lessons at the forefront of their minds when they arrive in Colombia for the FIFA Futsal World Cup. “There was only a split second,” Mykhailo reflected, “and we thought that it would end a draw and were ready for overtime, so we were punished.”
“You have to be focused during every part of the game, and play until the last second, until you hear the final whistle,” Mykola, the elder of the pair, concurred, insisting the painful end had not sullied his first steps on the international stage, having ended as Ukraine’s top scorer at the tournament. “I had a priceless experience during the EURO. I learned a lot, and I’ve seen a lot for myself.”
The brothers from Lviv have not had to dwell long on defeat, with Colombia 2016 kicking off just seven months later. They cruised through qualifying as one of the top seeds, racking up 29 goals in just five games – while conceding only six.
Despite both playing in more defensive roles, this time it was Mykhailo who led the scoring stakes for the side, though he insists their passage wasn’t as simple as the statistics suggest. “I wouldn’t say that we had an easy way to the World Cup,” he said. “We made it through thanks to our hard work, desire and due to the fact that the team really wanted it.”
With their mother having represented Ukraine in handball, it is clearly a family full of sporting prowess, particularly as they will be standing side-by-side on the world stage having only taken up the game five years ago. “As soon as we came into futsal, we immediately set ourselves this goal, we’ve dreamed about it,” Mykhailo said. “We wanted to repeat what our mother achieved, and the first time I put on a shirt with the national emblem of Ukraine, my eyes began to water.
“When we lined up together for the first time, they were incredible, inexpressible feelings,” Mykola added. “We played together in the EURO, and, all being well, we will go to the World Cup together. This we be incredibly emotional.”
Arriving in South America, they will instantly be met with a monumental first hurdle, facing off against reigning champions Brazil. Mykola believes it is a challenge they will be able to live with at the very least. “I played against Spain for the first time at the EURO – who are a very strong team, but you can cope with it. I think that with the Brazilians it will be the same.”
The pair who both represent Energia Lviv are well aware that fighting spirit has been the key ingredient in seeing Ukraine maintain a presence as one of the world’s top futsal nations. Surrounded by the more technical likes of Brazil, Spain and Portugal, Mykhailo feels they have to follow that path when they line up in Bucaramanga on 11 September.
“You always want to play against a team like Brazil, because it’s a top team. We want to play to find out whether we are ready to play at this level. Of course we want a positive result, but we don’t just want to play on the back foot, but to take the fight to them.” Mykola added: “We are Cossacks – we always fight and play fuelled by desire.”
With Mozambique and Australia to follow, Ukraine’s toughest assignment of the groups is likely to be its first, though clashes with the likes of Belgium and England in qualifying made them aware that the futsal world is growing. Eyes will be on the knock-out stages though, with hopes firmly set on breaking their quarter-final jinx.