UEFA's newest member nation, Kazakhstan, are already turning heads in the world of Futsal.
By Timur Kamashev
Although Kazakhstan failed to qualify from their preliminary round mini-tournament for the 2004/05 UEFA European Futsal Championship in Varna, they have good reason to be confident about the future. They faced Armenia, Romania and hosts Bulgaria over four days in January, and UEFA's newest member nation performed well with a win, a draw and a defeat.
Ranked 28th in the world and 16th in Europe, Kazakh players have taken Futsal to their hearts over the years, and Football Union of Kazakhstan (FSK) vice-president Seilda Bayshakov is confident they can continue to progress as a UEFA member nation.
"Kazakh Futsal has great traditions," he told uefa.com. "In 1999, we finished third in the Asian championship in Kuala Lumpur, and a year later we won second place in Bangkok, also winning a place in the final tournament of the [FIFA Futsal] World Championship in Guatemala in 2000."
And, although they were unable to qualify, the experience in Varna was invaluable for the squad's future development, especially as they nearly didn't get the chance to show their skills at all. "We were lacking the finances to get ready for the tournament but thanks to the efforts of FSK president Rakhat Aliyev, we were able to take all our best players to Bulgaria.
Certainly, Kazakhstan's first games as a European nation have showed a team of some promise. Competing in last November's 2004 World Championship qualifying mini-tournament in Andorra, they led 1-0 against the mighty Ukraine before succumbing to a 3-1 defeat and also beat their hosts, Andorra, 4-1 to come close to winning a place in next year's finals in Chinese Taipei.
The man who scored the goal against Ukraine, runners-up at the 2003 European Championship finals, was Kazakhstan's captain Alexandr Bondarev, and he is full of hope for the future. "We have experience of playing European opposition in club tournaments and also in qualifying for world championships in Andorra," he said.
Kazakh clubs have certainly suggested that real success might one day be possible, with MFC Zhigitter performing admirably in the first qualifying round of the UEFA Futsal Cup last October. They finished bottom of their group but enjoyed a 3-1 win in their final game against group winners ZVV West Stars of the Netherlands.
Zhgitter only managed a third-placed finish in the recent Kazakhstan Futsal Cup - Tulpar Karagandy beat Kairat Almaty 5-1 in the final - to demonstrate there is strength in depth among the Kazakh teams, something which augurs well for the future of their national side. With Futsal growing in popularity every year, Kazakhstan are well placed to joing the sport's international élite.