No Maltese club has ever made it through a round of the UEFA Futsal Cup but Hibernians FC aim to put that right in Finland this week.
Hibernians, who lost all three matches on their previous preliminary round appearance seven years ago, face Hamburg Panthers, hosts FS Ilves Tampere and Denmark's JB Gentofte Futsal from Wednesday hoping to top Group G and earn a main round trip to Riga. In seven previous campaigns in this competition, Maltese sides have always fallen at the first hurdle and have just one win and two draws between them in 19 fixtures, but Hibernians won the national title in style in May, beating Balzan Youths FC 7-2.
They immediately strengthened, signing Maltese internationals Daniel Brincat, Kurt Bartolo, Jesmond Micallef and Brian Baldacchino plus Georgian pair Levan Koberidze and David Bobokhidze as well as giving new deals to Bulgarian trio Boycho Marev, Georgi Gerasimov and Blwgovist Marev. Their only key absentee in Tampere will be Branko Nisević, now concentrating on his role as coach of Hibernians' football side, necessitating his futsal playing retirement.
On the bench for Hibernians in Finland will be Georgian national coach Avtandil Asatiani, who has taken over for a six-week spell having in January both overseen and played in a 9-0 UEFA Futsal EURO 2014 qualifying defeat of Malta at the Hibernians Pavillon in Paola. He has led some intensive training sessions and one of those on the losing end of that loss earlier this year, Cedric Scieberras, has high hopes.
"Personally I think Tampere are the strongest team," he told UEFA.com. "Being the host club and having home advantage surely makes them favourites to qualify. Hamburg Panthers together with JB Gentofte should also be worthy opponents.
"However, with the new additions and the foreigners that we already have we will, as usual, brave it out and will be a worthy opponents to all participating teams in the name of fair play. Hibernians FC Futsal are not just a futsal team but we are a family – we play to win but have fun."
Ivles themselves are making a seventh European appearance, having reached the main round three times but missed out last season on goal difference despite not losing. The club's tournament director said: "Finally we are very pleased to be hosting a tournament in Tampere. It will be interesting to face three new teams, who are most probably all eager to beat us. I do think the Germans from Hamburg have improved the quality of their domestic league and will be very difficult opponents.
"Hibernians from Malta might surprise both the teams and the spectators as they have assembled a very competitive team with international players. Though this is the seventh UEFA Futsal Cup participation in total for Ilves Tampere I do not recall any easy matches in these tournaments and I believe the same will happen at the end of this month. Nevertheless, with both home advantage and experience we are aiming to progress to the main round of the competition."
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