Monday sees the start of the 2005 UEFA European Futsal Championship in the Czech Republic and it promises to be the biggest and best of its kind yet.
For the uninitiated, Futsal is an indoor 'brother' of football, played using a smaller ball and with five players on each side, although rolling substitutions are allowed. Although Europe's top eight national teams are gathering now for the week-long finals in Ostrava, UEFA's preparations for this prestigious event began more than two years ago in tandem with the local organising committee.
As Futsal competition manager at UEFA, Laurent Morel is charged with overseeing the whole championship from start to finish, although up to 15 UEFA staff will be involved with the final tournament itself. He said: "My role is to develop Futsal throughout Europe by creating a European competition for national teams and one for clubs, and creating regulations for these competitions."
He added: "Once the 'product' is ready, in consultation with and with the approval of the relevant UEFA committees, it's my role to supervise the implementation of these competitions by our event management department." It does not end there. The 33-year-old Swiss also works to promote Futsal across UEFA's member associations, hoping to build on the huge affection for the game seen in traditional strongholds like Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ukraine and Russia.
Bigger and bigger
More and more countries are coming to the game - 33 nations entered qualifying for this year's championship - and Morel helps organise events like conferences and workshops to attract more interest, including from sponsors and the media. UEFA is also working closely with sports floor companies to produce better and safer surfaces.
He continued: "UEFA has a key role to play in the fast development of Futsal. The UEFA Futsal Committee meets twice a year and brings its expert opinion to the UEFA administration, which then submits its decisions to the UEFA Executive Committee for approval." It is a busy schedule and will be reflected in the undoubted success of this year's tournament, which will feature five quarter-finalists from the recent FIFA Futsal World Championship, including eventual winners Spain and reigning European champions Italy.
A fan of the sport first and foremost, Morel has particular hopes for this latest edition of a tournament that began its life within UEFA in 1999, although Futsal's roots can be traced back to South America in the 1930s. He said: "I hope we see more goals than last time [in Italy, two years ago] but also see an evolution of the game - in terms of speed, defensive systems and offensive combinations.
"Spain play in an extremely clever way and use their potential to its maximum. But I would also like to see how Russia react to their failure to reach the world championships, while Portugal could certainly be a serious contender. The game is nowadays much faster. Teams have reinforced their defensive strategies and the gap between the strongest and the weakest is continuously getting smaller."
Whoever lifts the trophy on 20 February will no doubt be able to sit back and enjoy their moment in the spotlight. However, for some the work will only be starting. "I have just completed the inspection of the countries bidding for 2007 [Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Netherlands and Portugal]," revealed Morel. If Futsal is to continue its rapid rise in popularity and professionalism, such commitment to the cause will be vital.
For full coverage of the finals from Ostrava, click here.
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