By Paul Saffer
It culminated in a dramatic final two minutes against MFK Dinamo Moskva in last Saturday's final, but Action 21 Charleroi's UEFA Futsal Cup triumph was years in the making.
When the competition began in 2001/02, the Belgian champions made it an immediate priority to land the new European trophy. Indeed, they won through to the first final, only to lose 5-1 to Spain's Playas de Castellón FS in Lisbon. The next year they returned to the same stage, now a two-legged affair, but again met Castellón and after a 1-1 home draw lost 5-3 in Spain.
Last season was an even greater disappointment, as they bowed out in the second qualifying round, again defeated in Lisbon, this time by group hosts SL Benfica. Charleroi were still dominant in Belgium, but clearly needed something extra to bring the continental crown north.
The solution was a collaboration with local rivals Kickers Charleroi, bringing the Almeida brothers, Alex and Marcelo, plus Davi, to Action 21. All three played a role as Charleroi sped through the European qualifiers again, until their crunch second qualifying round meeting with holders Boomerang Interviú FS. Played in Charleroi's new European home of the Spiroudôme in front of 6,500 fans, the home team needed only a draw but fell 2-1 behind with less than two minutes left, only for Lúcio Rosa to strike a dramatic equaliser.
Incredibly, that was just the curtain-raiser for a truly epic final against Dinamo. In the first leg, again in a packed Spiroudôme, Charleroi took a 4-1 half-time lead but ended the game only 4-3 ahead. Then in Moscow, Sergei Ivanov swiftly gave Dinamo an away goals lead only for Alex to strike twice before the break. Dinamo came back and with only eight minutes left led themselves, and although Andre swiftly restored Charleroi's advantage, Ivanov sent the game into extra time.
Still the goals rained in. First from Charleroi's Henrique, then Dinamo's Joan and Sirilo. And with only two minutes left both Kelson and Eder scored to give Charleroi a decisive 10-9 overall advantage, and the trophy.
Luca Cragnaz, one of two Belgians in the otherwise Brazilian squad, declared to www.futsalecho.be: "Having been part of the evolution of the club for so many years, this is without doubt the most beautiful day of my sporting career."
The following day Charleroi returned to be met by an enthusiastic reception at Brussels airport. Alex, who had lifted the trophy as captain and was probably the star of the final, said: "
It is my third title since arriving in Belgium - but of course the most beautiful."
But the agreement that made Alex's participation in the final possible was at the heart of Charleroi's success. Atabey Aktepe, the sporting and financial manager of the club and a former player with both Charleroi teams, had been the architect of the transformation less than 12 months before.
Aktepe said: "I encouraged the representatives of the town of Charleroi, Claude Despiegeleer and Lucien Cariat, to force a merger between the two clubs. Each one wasted its energy in interminable and useless quarrels."
The eventual Spanish champions, as well as Dinamo, will be out to snatch the trophy from Charleroi next season. Indeed Dinamo coach Yuri Rudnev said: "Our fans and friends said it was something unbelievable, amazing and fantastic. Everyone believes that next victory will be Russian." But having worked so hard to finally lift the cup, Charleroi will not relinquish it without a fight.
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