In the last few weeks England's futsal team have reached unprecedented heights and played one of Europe's leading sides twice in front of sell-out crowds, with coach Pete Sturgess enjoying their first "peek at the top table".
In January England beat hosts Lithuania 4-3 and Cyprus 2-1 in Kaunas to top their UEFA Futsal EURO 2014 preliminary round group and move through a stage of official competition for the first time. Their reward is a main round chance in late March against 2012 finalists Ukraine, Slovenia and hosts Turkey, who were already booked to visit London last weekend for two friendlies.
Turkey won the sell-out games in Barking 5-2 and 2-0 but considering they were England's first matches in seven years against any side who had qualified for the previous European final tournament, it was no disgrace. "The difference between the teams was that Turkey had individuals that could turn the game," Sturgess told UEFA.com. "Any half-chances that fell to them were going in the net.
"As disappointed as the players and staff are, every experience like this we learn from and become more robust as a futsal team. We always draw positives. We are at a transitional period – we are just getting a peek at that top table. We're going to get slapped down a few times but we'll just keep coming back stronger."
That England will be meeting Turkey again in Erzurum on 28 March, potentially for a finals or qualifying play-off berth, is down to their superb performance in Lithuania, not least against the hosts, as Sturgess's men held on to win 4-3 in front of a hostile crowd of nearly 2,000 despite two players receiving red cards.
"That's the English – we never make it easy for ourselves!" the coach said. "But instead of being intimidated by the large partisan crowd we fed off that – it gave us a real energy and desire to do well."
Now Slovenia, Turkey and two-time EURO runners-up Ukraine await as England step into world-class competition for the first time. "We need to know what it is we have to add to be competitive at that next level," Sturgess said. "We are still fact-finding. We will get knock-backs, but we'll always bounce back stronger."
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