Head Coach Peter Sturgess reflects on recent games for England.
UEFA Futsal Euro 2012
Preliminary Qualifying Round
22 & 24 January 2011
Click here for results
By Peter Sturgess
Believe it or not, the preparation for January’s UEFA European Futsal Championship qualifying games began almost two years ago in Dublin. The England Futsal team were in the same position then; trying to break through and qualify from the middle to lower ranked teams to go into the “pot” with the big Futsal nations – daunting but strangely exciting all at the same time. In Dublin, 2009 we had started with two defeats against a very strong Kazakhstan side, who eventually went through as group winners, and a scrappy bad tempered defeat to the Republic of Ireland. This left us with a final game against Cyprus to try and salvage some pride and belief. That evening will be special for everyone involved with the rollercoaster that is England Futsal. Without a single away victory in its short history, let alone a win in a Euro qualifying game, the England squad won the game 4-2 to finish second in the group and miss out on qualifying as one of the “lucky losers” only on goal difference.
The reason I say that this began the preparation for our latest venture is that it gave us real hope and belief that we, as a squad, and as an inexperienced Futsal nation, might be able to compete at the next level. What followed is now clear to see: the establishment and growth of The FA National Futsal League, the development of junior and youth competitions, the emergence of a Futsal coaching pathway and most importantly for me, a commitment to getting the squad together more often and for longer periods. That result against Cyprus, and the euphoria that surrounded it, sparked a massive phase in the development of Futsal in this country.
Back to the qualifying games!
The groups were announced and we found ourselves in a really strong one along with the hosts Macedonia, Georgia and Estonia. This was going to be no easy route to the next round. We had visited Macedonia in October of last year to play two friendly games. It was a chance for us to measure our progress and get an insight into flights, accommodation, food and the types of court we might be playing on. Macedonia won the two games 4-0 and 5-1, but the scores do not really do justice to how well England played. Futsal is a game that will punish you for the slightest mistake or lapse in concentration. In the first game the score was 0-0 with only nine minutes left but tiredness and some clinical counter attacking punished us and the 4-0 result looked worse than it was. Our National League season had not started last October so all of our players were “Futsal rusty” and the loss of sharpness and fitness that can be present when playing “out of season” was more of a factor than we anticipated. However, such is the grit, determination, and improving Futsal ability of England that we took the lead in the second game and were a whisker from making it 2-0 when a shot was cleared off the line with the GK beaten. Such are the fine lines where games are won and lost. Macedonia eventually found a gear that we could not cope with and with our players tiring rapidly the 5-1 result once more reflected what might have been.
All of this meant that our opening game against Macedonia was going to be a psychological test as much as anything else. Midway through the second half of this opening game the Kale sports hall in Skopje, venue for all of the games, was filled with the sound of loud, aggressive booing. The crowd were reacting in this way because with Macedonia leading 2-1, the host nations were being put under the severest of pressure from an inspired England team. Wave after wave of attacks threatened the Macedonia lead when after going 2-0 in front the England team scored. This goal was the catalyst for some of the best Futsal England have ever played and the Macedonians were really on the rack. Did I say Futsal can be such a cruel game? A game that can make you experience almost every emotion in the shortest of times. With only minutes left and England really pressing, an England player was sent off for a second bookable offence. The whole game, atmosphere and result turned on this decision. Macedonia kept the ball and ranthe clock down before delivering the final ‘killer’ third goal with three seconds remaining in the game. A cruel blow for an England squad that had given everything.
In the game that followed, Georgia blitzed a shell shocked Estonia 8-0 with three goals coming in the opening minutes. We played the Georgian team in our second game!
The result was 4-0 to Georgia, it wasn’t as good a performance as the night before, perhaps we were tired and found it difficult to pick ourselves up after such a spirited performance. Perhaps the Georgian team (eight of whom played for the same club side ) tested us in a way that showed up our inexperience at this level. It was difficult to evaluate but the clinical counter attacks and lethal shooting of the Georgian team did a ‘job’ on us and put us back in our place. In the opening game before we played, the Estonia team fought out an exciting end to end game with Macedonia. The 8-0 result the night before had put real pressure on the hosts to score lots of goals against Estonia to avoid the heartbreak of missing out on goal difference. The 6-2 victory by Macedonia was slightly disturbing for us as Estonia showed how extremely fit they were and demonstrated an ability to play Futsal at a much higher level than they had showed in their first game. We would face them in our last game.
The rest day was welcomed by all. It gave the players a chance to sleep late and catch up on the rest and recovery that can be deprived following the late evening kick offs before tossing and turning as you analyse the game that has just been played. That evening, it was quiz time with the staff team gaining a famous victory in the fiercely contested six round quiz against the English players. Bring on Estonia.
The game finished with a landmark victory for England, 3-2. Why a landmark? At half-time the score was 2-0 to Estonia; the result of two defensive lapses and two quick counter attacks. Ironically, England had played a really effective style of Futsal that incorporated a well-organised zonal defence that was set up to regain possession, rotate and cause Estonia problems. It was working but the cutting edge wasn’t there and frustration was creeping in.
The comeback began early in the second-half and belief surged through players and staff. This England squad never knows when or how to quit and although it might lose games because they are still learning the intricacies of the game, they never take a step back when asked to give everything and compete. Once this unique team spirit is allied to a real understanding of Futsal and experiences that can only be got from competing at this level and intensity, there will be more nights like this last one in Skopje. Estonia could only watch as their foul count rose; finding it difficult to cope with the constant England attacks. Midway through the second half they reached five fouls. They were walking a tightrope. Every foul now would result in a long penalty. One of the England goals was scored in this way but the performance was notable for the way that pressure was applied by trying to play Futsal. Sometimes when you are trying to regain a foothold in a game that is slipping away you resort to a sleeves rolled up – physical battle to try to force your way back. This current England squad began to exert real Futsal pressure in a more cold and calculating way. This is the encouraging development that is taking place and it is a development that will really move the team on to the next level.
In the cold light of day when you look at the results, it is easy to say that once this team meets a nation with a real Futsal pedigree the outcome is inevitable. However, I view it in a very different way. This England squad is in no way competing on equal terms with some of the nations it plays.
The progress of the squad has been enormous and we are all, players and staff, getting to grips with this great game. The infrastructure is now in place and will bear fruit in the near future. I am convinced it is just a matter of time.
To put it into perspective, Portugal has 32,000 Futsal players, England has around 400 (who might be considered for recruitment to the National programme). These figures will show similar differences for most, if not all of the higher ranked teams that we must play and beat to qualify for a shot at the “big boys”. Demoralised, frustrated, depressed by this? Not in the least. The victories and successes that will follow will be all the sweeter for the times, like in Macedonia, when we give everything but just miss out.