There are few football tournaments in which England count among the minnows, but the UEFA European Futsal Championship is a different matter.
Search for success
The small-sided game is relatively young in England, and in the 59 internationals they have played since their 2003 debut, England have just one win and three draws and are still searching for their first competitive point. However, they are hoping to break that duck in preliminary round Group A in Dublin, and after facing Kazakhstan will take on two nations with who they have drawn in the past, the Republic of Ireland and Cyprus.
Peter Sturgess took over as coach last year, and is looking forward to the challenge. "We've taken a very young squad so we are very excited," he told uefa.com. "Because of the make-up of our squad, we will go into the games as underdogs. We can use it as motivation to add to our performance, but we do see ourselves as underdogs."
Ireland are entering the competition for the first time, but have secured useful results at Under-21 level. England found out about their strength when denied victory by a late Ireland goal in a 3-3 draw in a December warm-up tournament. "Both sides are capable so it should be an exciting game on the night," Sturgess said, though adding that England's first opponents could be the trickiest. "Ireland will be tough but I have seen DVD footage of Kazakhstan and they were every impressive, with good movement and use of the ball. I think they will cause all of the teams a few problems."
While England's team were originally recruited by Sturgess's predecessor Graeme Dell from non-league football, the previous coach instituted a training programme that has gradually brought on a set of players more used to the specific demands of futsal. "The majority play futsal regularly as well as the eleven-a-side game," Sturgess said. "We are taking a squad who are playing more futsal and it shows the growth of the game."
A national league system, with regional divisions followed by play-offs leading to the UEFA Futsal Cup, has been set up by the Football Association, and although the strongest teams have tended to be sides of Russian, Brazilian or Portuguese nationals, Sturgess argues: "It is not a negative that the better teams have players who do not qualify for England. The players have a history of futsal and are very experienced." However, to develop his national team he is forging links with colleges and also working closely with a country where futsal is long established. "We are talking to Croatia to act as a training partner, to send the squad over there to immerse themselves in the game," the coach added.
Meanwhile, Cyprus lost to Kazkakhstan in their 2007 UEFA European Futsal Championship and 2008 FIFA Futsal World Cup qualifying campaigns but coach Konstantinos Petros rates all their opponents. "Our information tells us both England and Ireland are very good teams, they're not so experienced but have skilled young players and you just have to be careful against them. We play to win every time and it's not easy facing a team in their own country."
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