England win only their second international Futsal match.
A man-of-the match performance by captain Luke Ballinger and an outstanding performance by his team-mates steered England to a convincing victory over Cyprus in the final group game of the UEFA European Futsal Championships Preliminary Round as England’s best Futsal performance for years moved the team to a respectable second place in the final group table.
This display was memorable for a variety of reasons. It is only England’s second victory in international Futsal, was the first ever win away from home and England’s first win in a competition-based match. But more importantly, the momentum that the squad have built up over recent months and the promise that the team have shown has raised the expectancy that a performance of this calibre was near.
England were fired-up following their disappointing defeat to the Republic of Ireland two days before, and started the game enforcing their style of play on their Cypriot opposition. Cyprus had demonstrated throughout the competition that they would be difficult to play against; they had beaten a spirited Irish team and played solidly in defeat against Kazakhstan.
The Lions were playing a more aggressive brand of Futsal, pushing high up the pitch, pressuring the Cypriots early and being more physical in their approach. But neither team seemed in the ascendency in the early stages of the game until England created an excellent opportunity that Nick Colley put away to notch up his second goal of the tournament.
This goal visibly eased the tension and anxiety in the England players, who began settling into a more assured rhythm in their passing and play. The team created and squandered a number of excellent goal scoring opportunities through intelligent passing and movement. Cyprus punished England for their profligacy after 10 minutes in the first-half, putting together their first real dangerous attacking move and finishing with apparent ease to draw level at 1-1.
The alarm bells rang in the England camp, and the confidence in the team appeared to drain. However, England responded by playing maturely, keeping possession and trusting their Futsal skills. The England team continued to press forward spurning a number of other good chances before Hussein Isa, England’s player of the tournament, popped up to finish an outstanding move just before half-time.
The game was poised on a knife-edge: England had the upper-hand but Cyprus still possessed a considerable threat. This was demonstrated straight after half-time when Cyprus strung together a promising passing sequence and punished some loose England defending. This really asked some difficult questions of the England players psyche, they had undoubtedly played the better Futsal up to this period, but would they wobble?
England kept their heads and continued to dominate the game with the majority of the team having their best displays in an England shirt. Thomas Obasi struck on a lightning-quick counter-attack but hit the post, Isa and Colley both went close.
In the middle of the second-half when some inspiration was required, Ballinger duly arrived to finish off an Isa shot after the keeper parried. 3-2 to England, but it was not time to celebrate; the England players have traditionally looked vulnerable immediately after scoring, but some fine defending and solid goalkeeping by Dean Thornton kept the Cypriot threat under control.
As the game crept on and the tension increased, Ballinger popped up to snatch his second and seal the victory for England with four minutes remaining. The jubilant team saw out the final few minutes and wild celebrations ensued at the final whistle. A victory and a performance of this class had been long-awaited and the team, manager and coaching staff had been craving a display of this magnitude during the course of this tournament.
Kazakhstan won the group convincingly to progress to the next stages of the European Futsal Championships, leaving Republic of Ireland, England and Cyprus level on points. Satisfyingly for the team and accurately reflecting the overall quality of performances during the tournament, England gained second place on goal difference. Theoretically, England could be in consideration to be awarded a spot in the next stages of the European Championships as one of the two best runners-up from the Preliminary Rounds; but realistically this would be unlikely. Second place in the group however, and a fine victory against Cyprus represents a big-step forward for English Futsal.