The surprise package of UEFA Futsal EURO 2010, when they reached the semi-finals in their first qualification with some swashbuckling play, Azerbaijan were a little disappointed to depart in the group stage two years later following an extraordinary 9-8 defeat by Serbia.
Next week they travel to Antwerp hoping to challenge again and among their squad is 35-year-old Elnur Gambarov, not part of their previous UEFA Futsal EURO campaigns but a long-standing player with European regulars Araz Naxçivan and boasting football experience at UEFA Regions' Cup level with Femida. As Azerbaijan prepare to face Slovenia and Italy in Group C, he spoke to UEFA.com.
UEFA.com: How have preparations gone?
Elnur Gambarov: Everything is just fine, we don't have injured players and the mood is very good. The last phase of preparation began on 3 January with two training sessions a day, one in the morning and one in the evening. They last two hours. Mostly we concentrate on physical conditioning. We have players from four different Azerbaijani clubs – Araz, where I am playing, Neftchi, Ekol Baku and Fenerbagca.
Our futsal association president Zaur Ahundov has been visiting most of our training sessions. He asks if we have any problems and tries to create the best possible environment for us. So we just need to go out and play our game in Antwerp. We can't complain.
Nobody has a guaranteed place in the team. It's about all the players together – locals as well as naturalised Brazilians. Our training sessions are interesting but tough, and the competition for places in the squad is intense.
UEFA.com: What are your goals in Antwerp?
Gambarov: To win the group. We can't afford to finish second – because we would then play Spain in the next round. We would like to avoid this scenario in the early stages. We want to better our result of 2010 when we lost the third-place match. We want to be in the final.
But first we need to get out of the group, and even this task is not so easy. Think about how Slovenia managed to beat Portugal quite recently and to draw with Spain. Or look at Araz's match against Sporting Clube de Portugal [a 6-3 victory to win their UEFA Futsal Cup elite round group]. We were not regarded as favourites but we did it – even the local fans [in Portugal] started to support us in the final phase of the game.
UEFA.com: Could you tell us a bit more about your national team and the standard of futsal in Azerbaijan?
Gambarov: Like I said, the atmosphere within the team is just great. We are like one big family. We have never had a gap between the locals and players from abroad. Our Brazilians have been living in Baku for more than five years. We are eating from the same pot and following the same dream. I would say they have already turned into proper Azerbaijanis. Nor are we the only team with naturalised players.
Regarding futsal's development in Azerbaijan, it feels like it's getting better and better, with talented youth players emerging.
UEFA.com: But what is still missing from Azerbaijani futsal?
Gambarov: First, we would like to have a stronger domestic league and to see more fans in the stands. We hope the UEFA Futsal Cup finals in Baku [in April] will make a big impact. Maybe Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev will come to support our Araz side. Futsal in Azerbaijan has been progressing, but we need more time.
I would also appeal to those who think we have too many 'mature' players in the team. I think experience will count for 95% of the results at Futsal EURO. We have enough experience. When you play against the strongest opponents, your speed is not important, rather your ability to react quickly and correctly to different game situations.
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