This weekend sees the start of the European qualifying round for the 2004 FIFA Futsal World Championship.
uefa.com will provide regular updates of results and standings along with a full report on each of the ten mini-tournaments once they are completed. In all 32 teams are involved, with two groups of four and eight groups of three. Each side will play the other teams in their section once.
The ten group winners will take part in a play-off round next month to determine which five European nations represent UEFA at the finals in Chinese Taipei late next year. Among the favourites are reigning world champions Spain although European title-holders Italy will also be fancied.
Getting proceedings under way on Saturday are the Netherlands who hosted the first FIFA event in 1989, and actually reached the final only to lose 2-1 to Brazil. The Dutch have failed to hit such heady heights since but under coach Vic Hermans - who was voted player of the tournament in 1989 - they are bidding for a brighter future.
The Dutch are in Group 5 along with mini-tournament hosts Lithuania and Belarus. Hermans' men will play the Lithuanians first and, with home advantage for the Baltic country in Kaunas, the Dutch will have a tough task on their hands. Then they will face Belarus on Sunday, with Hermans more than aware of their ability having watched them recently in Poland.
"Belarus played with a team made up from two clubs and they have spent a long time playing together," he said. "They have improved a lot and it will not be easy to beat them." The Dutch have enjoyed some good results themselves, however, having won three and drawn one of their warm-ups, including a trip to Greece and at home against France.
Hermans has been charged with taking Dutch Futsal forward since early 2002 and has placed the emphasis on new talent. "My team is different than it was a year ago. I have put seven new players in the team who are young and skilful for the future." However, experience can also be vital and Hermans has been delighted to welcome back former star Edwin Grunholz.
"He was away from the team for five years, but when he heard about the national team's progression he asked if it was possible to come back," Hermans added. Grunholz is still only 34 and is playing club Futsal in Belgium.
Although Group 5 will be difficult, Hermans has certainly every reason to be optimistic that the Dutch can reach the play-offs for Chinese Taipei. It promises to be one of the closest sections, although the nine other groups will also have plenty of intrigue.
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