Ukraine may be high-performing veterans of the international futsal scene – reaching the quarter-final of every UEFA and FIFA competition since 2010 proves that – but of late maintaining those high standards has been a challenge.
“As you maybe know, it’s not an easy situation there at the moment,” Dmytro Bondar, vice-captain of the team, explained to FIFA.com. “But at least the team haven’t collapsed and have managed to maintain their level, while in some areas we’ve improved.”
Having taken the armband in their final group game, a predictably tricky encounter with an Australian side needing a result, the 3-1 win continued their run of reaching the knockout stages at every FIFA Futsal World Cup they have entered. While a solid track record in itself, Bondar – one of the veterans of the side at 32 years old, knows this year that achievement has an extra lining of satisfaction stitched in.
“It’s a record we are proud of but it’s a difficult situation in Ukraine thanks to a combination of politics and economics. We did have a very good period of time for futsal in Ukraine where many teams had quality players, but that’s not the case at present,” he conceded.
“Unfortunately, we lost some strong futsal teams in Ukraine, but the really good thing is that we still have some very impressive players that we’ve been working with and training alongside. It’s because of that that we are able to represent ourselves so well at the European Championships and World Cup.”
Though, with something of a knowing smirk, there was no way he was going to be drawn on comparing teams throughout the years of consistency. “I won’t be talked into comparing some of the past teams with this one!” he said with a laugh.
But while they have been able to maintain this core of talent which has been able to hold its own amongst the best in the world, their squad sees only four teams in total from the Ukrainian league represented. Half the team come from Bondar’s own Lokomotiv Kharkiv, who topped the league last season before finishing second in the play-offs to Energy Lviv.
“Because we have some problems in Ukraine and there are not a lot of strong teams, the Ukrainian championship is not the most competitive at the moment,” Bondar admitted. “This has been reflected in the performances and results on the international side of things. As the national championship is quite weak, the players aren’t getting the chance to get the experience they need.”
However, with their narrow 3-1 defeat to Brazil – even closer than the scoreline suggests – proving they are capable of worrying the big sides, the challenge that Argentina present in the round of 16 will not feel unconquerable by any means. Bondar certainly expects no easy ride, though: “They play really powerful football at their best, and are very mobile, so it will be a real challenge.”
But they will be boosted at the back, with the return of goalkeeper Ievgen Ivanyak, after their captain was suspended for the Australia match – though Bondar took on the role with aplomb, scoring their crucial second on the night. “When you wear the captain’s arm band you have to take responsibility, not only for your team, but also for your captain, who is sat in the technical area, so in some ways that win was not only for the team, but also for him.”
Having the three-time World Cup participant heading the side as they walk out on Thursday will be a big deal in the eyes of Bondar too. “Ivanyak is our captain, the leader of our team, and the whole team follows his lead, so it’s really important to have him back for the Argentina game.”
So with his feelings about the short-term boosted, how about the long-term in regards to the Ukrainian game and if there’s hope of it getting back to where it once was? “Of course there’s hope.”