Out of breath but with a swagger in his step, Kazakhstan coach Ricardo Sobral went through a rollercoaster of emotions on Sunday evening. All smiles after watching his charges comfortably dispose of Solomon Islands (10-0) in their final FIFA Futsal World Cup Colombia 2016 group-stage match to qualify for the Round of 16, he took great delight in their excellent all-round team performance. For a country whose sport fans often only have eyes for boxing, this scenario would have been inconceivable only a few years ago.
The Brazilian tactician’s blood pressure subsequently rose even further, when he found out that Argentina were losing 2-1 to Costa Rica, a result that would have seen the Kazakhs paired up with Ukraine in the last 16.
“It was really intense to follow the match and feel so powerless,” Sobral told FIFA.com. “The stakes were huge for us.” A few minutes later, Argentina equalised to make it 2-2. And that one little goal had a far-reaching impact: Kazakhstan would now lock horns with futsal heavyweights Spain. “Let’s not beat around the bush – I would obviously have preferred to play Ukraine in the Round of 16. Spain are big favourites, but despite that, we’re not scared. We do have great respect for them, though,” he added.
Sobral will look back to their clash on 11 February for inspiration, when his players came close to definitively placing Kazakhstan on the futsal map after opening the scoring against Spain in the semi-finals of the 2016 UEFA European Futsal Championship in Serbia. Had it not been for a positioning error, a top-notch save and a sprinkling of bad luck, they perhaps would not have gone down to the eventual tournament winners and two-time world champions by an eventual scoreline of 5-3.
Revenge in the air As is often the case at the highest level, there was not a marked difference between the teams. The absence of their suspended goalkeeper, Higuita, had a significant impact, however. “The futsal world was blown away by our performance,” said Sobral. “Everyone was sure that Higuita would have made all the difference, if he’d been able to play. That wasn’t just me talking, it was objective observers – and they were right. My goalkeeper is on a completely different level.”
On Wednesday in Medellin, nearly seven months after that duel, the ambitious Kazakhs will be presented with a second chance of upsetting the odds. “Don’t expect me to keep a low profile or engage in false modesty. We have world-class players, and our team is also firing on all cylinders,” pointed out the confident 45-year-old, never one to mince his words. “Higuita, of course, but also players like Douglas, Leo, and our captain, Dinmukhambet Suleimenov, would all be capable of playing for any team, including Spain.”
The Spanish machine has already been running smoothly, picking up three victories in the group phase. Boasting finely-honed tactics, physical strength, exceptional technique, a proven fighting spirit, possession dominance, and a high-quality bench, La Roja’s success should come as a surprise to no-one.
Sobral, however, remained undaunted at the thought of taking on one of the world’s best sides. “We want to, and we can, eliminate them, even though I wouldn’t mind removing Miguelin and Lozano from their team, if I could,” said the charismatic AFC Kairat coach with a grin. “We’re planning to let our own game do the talking. The key will be to counter-attack more precisely and quickly than them.”