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A Spanish Hat Trick

The sixth FIFA Futsal World Cup will witness several firsts For example, this will be the first time the tournament has comprised 20 teams (as opposed to 16 in the past), the first time it has been held in Brazil – the founding country of futsal alongside Uruguay – and indeed the first time in South America. Not only that, it will mark the debut of the Solomon Islands and Libya. The tournament promises spectacular and exciting matches, especially as all the leading teams made it through qualifying. The 56 matches will be played in two towns and two halls: in the “Maracanazinho” (capacity: 12,600), the legendary 54-year-old arena in Rio de Janeiro which was recently revamped for this tournament, and in the “Jomalista Nilson Nelson” (capacity: 16,600) in the capital Brasilia.
Alongside the hosts, defending champions Spain are the main favourites. “Our minimum goal is to reach the final,” says Spain coach Venancio Lopez, who replaced Javier Lozano in September 2007. Lozano stepped down after a long and very successful tenure, during which he guided Spain to victory in the last two FIFA Futsal World Cups and four European championships. Spain showed their class in qualification, led by their outstanding goalkeeper Luis Amado, defensive bulwark Kike and attackers Marcelo and Andreu. They won their four matches easily, with a goal difference of 29-3.
Italy, runners-up to Spain at the FIFA Futsal World Cup 2004 and the 2007 European Championships, are also among the favourites. Will they manage to overcome the Spaniards this time round? Attacking wizards Adriano Foglia and Jairo Manoel lead an Italian team that consists almost exclusively of players whose ancestors hall from Brazil.
Of the six European representatives, Portugal also have an excellent chance. “We want to improve upon our performance at the European Championships,” says national coach Orlando Duarte. In other words, to get at least third place, as in 2000 when Portugal took the bronze medal on their FIFA Futsai World Cup debut in Guatemala.
The Solomon Islands can only dream of progressing that far. Oceania’s sole representative is happy just to be there. This is mainly thanks to Micah Lea’alafa and Elliot Ragomo, who between them scored 22 of the team’s 41 goals in the qualifying tournament on Fiji. Coach Victor Wai’ia is convinced that his team has the quality to hold its own against the best teams. The Solomon Islands have no intention of being cannon fodder, like hosts Guatemala in 2000, who lost 29-2 to Brazil in the first round.
2008 could see a repeat of this uneven match-up, albeit one which is unlikely to end with another thrashing for the Central Americans, who have made great strides in the meantime, as shown by their impressive qualification ahead of the other CONCACAF representatives Cuba and the USA. Guatemala, led by goalscorer Jose Rafael Gonzalez, are aiming to reach the second round in Brazil.
This is the minimum target for Libya too. Although the North Africans are regarded as the pioneers of futsal in Africa, they have not yet been able to qualify for a FIFA Futsal World Cup final competition. Now the team, led by Croatian coach Mato Stankovic, has achieved qualification ahead of Egypt, who nevertheless also managed to book their place in the finals. Iran also qualified impressively. The team led by coach Hossein Shams won the Asian championship for the ninth time with a 4-0 victory in the final over Thailand, thus underlining their status as their continent’s leading futsal power. The two other AFC representatives are Japan and China PR. Iran line up with one of the best futsal players in Asia, Vahid Shamsaee, and hope finally to cause a sensation at a FIFA Futsal World Cup. Argentina did just that in Chinese Taipeh in 2004 by taking fourth place. Coach Sergio Lopez is hoping for a similar feat at this FIFA Futsal World Cup: “We dominated all of our matches at this year’s Copa America, with the exception of our game against Brazil, and played attractive futsal.”