The first 16-team UEFA Futsal EURO finals begin in the Netherlands on Wednesday: we pick out some key storylines to follow.
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UEFA Futsal EURO 2022 kicks off in the Netherlands on Wednesday, the first since the competition switched from being a biennial 12-team event to a 16-nation final tournament played every four years.
The group stage runs in Amsterdam and Groningen until 29 January before the capital's Ziggo Dome hosts the knockout games, with the final on 6 February. We pick out some key points to watch in UEFA's biggest-ever futsal event.
Group A: Netherlands (hosts), Serbia, Ukraine, Portugal (holders)
Group B: Kazakhstan, Italy, Slovenia, Finland
Group C: Russia, Poland, Slovakia, Croatia
Group D: Georgia, Spain, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Can anyone stop Portugal?
Arguably for the first time since the inaugural UEFA futsal tournament of 1996, Spain do not start as favourites. Indeed, 2018 in Ljubljana was only the fourth time in 11 editions they did not lift the trophy. The previous three occasions another nation went in as holders, Spain were still expected to, and indeed did, win the tournament (they were reigning world champions in 2001 and 2005, and their dominance in 2016 was far from unexpected).
This time, though, it is Portugal who are not just the defending champions but also the FIFA Futsal Word Cup holders, having claimed that title in Lithuania last October. Ricardinho may have bowed out of the team following the final win against Argentina but their squad containing seven players from UEFA Futsal Champions League holders Sporting CP is full of serial winners.
Spain, though, can hardly be ruled out. Just as in the Futsal EURO 2018 final, Portugal needed extra time to pip their neighbours in the 2021 World Cup last eight. Furthermore, the list of players who have missed out on their Netherlands squad, including Juanjo, Marc Tolrà, Solano, Bebe and Lin, suggests Spain could name a second list of 14 who would also be live contenders and underlines the strength of their challenge.
Two other teams fit into the favourites bracket. Russia's sole title came in 1999 but they have reached the final in multiple EUROs since, as well as the 2016 World Cup, and in Lithuania last year looked superb before Argentina knocked them out in an epic penalty shoot-out. Kazakhstan made the last four in the World Cup, just as in both of their EURO appearances, and have more squad depth than in their previous challenges.
Two-time champions Italy are in a rebuilding process but without the burden of expectation could cause a surprise, while the qualifying displays of Croatia and the World Cup run of Serbia also suggest they could be a danger to the quartet of favourites. Ukraine, Slovenia and Azerbaijan are not short of experience, either.
Newcomers look to surprise
Hosts Netherlands, one of the pioneers of international futsal and indeed runners-up in the first World Cup of 1989, the last big event they hosted, return to the finals after an eight-year absence having prepared hard to try and recapture their glory days. However, a group with Serbia, Portugal and Ukraine offers no respite. Not only are the Dutch making a welcome return; the expansion of the finals has allowed a record four teams to earn debut appearances.
Four years ago the sole newcomers were France and they burst on to the scene by holding Spain and running Azerbaijan close. However, Les Bleus are absent this time after being knocked out by Georgia and they could be the debutants to watch, coincidentally in a group with Spain and Azerbaijan. Georgia boast a squad including hugely experienced goalkeeper Zviad Kupatadze and pivot Eilsandro as well as the gifted Roninho, Thales, Archil Sebiskveradze and recent call-up Vilian.
Also in Group D are the biggest surprise qualifiers, Bosnia and Herzegovina. They looked to be in the most competitive of sections, with Serbia, Romania and North Macedonia, yet booked a finals spot with two games to spare having won their opening four fixtures. Their formula of a close-knit – in some cases part-time – squad has not done teams like Slovenia any harm.
Many fans were also happy to see the other newcomers earn places after so many near-misses in recent years. Slovakia have been solid performers in the past without quite making the breakthrough but have a great chance in what looks a very level Group C. Finland showed their ambition to rise from minnow status back in 2013 when they appointed experienced Croatian coach Mićo Martić; he has remained at the helm through much qualifying heartbreak and the celebrations when they beat Belgium to earn their finals place were vindication of the hard work that has taken them to the big stage at last.
Stars ready to shine
From Ricardinho's breakthrough in 2007 for hosts Portugal he stood out as the star of European futsal. However, having finally aided his team to the title in 2018, he will not be in the Netherlands, retiring from international futsal after returning from injury to win last year's World Cup. But there are plenty of other talents who ready for stellar status.
The world and European champions naturally have several candidates themselves. For many, Pany Varela, who scored both Portugal's goals in the World Cup final defeat of Argentina, was the stand-out player of the tournament. And, especially after his displays helping Sporting win last season's UEFA Futsal Champions League, 20-year-old pivot Zicky might just have the talent and charisma to have a career as spectacular as Ricardinho's.
Spain have often had too many superb players for one to emerge as especially outstanding but there are plenty who could yet be the hero in the Netherlands: Adolfo and Raúl Campos, perhaps, captain Ortiz chasing a record-equalling fifth title, or Sergio Lozano, once again back from serious injury and in the goals.
Once again the heart of the Kazakhstan team will be forward-running goalkeeper Higuita and the all-round talent of Douglas Junior, maybe the most complete player in European futsal. Russia's Sergei Abramov is at the top of his game and a player more than two year's Ricardinho's senior, Robinho, shows no sign of slowing down after an excellent World Cup.
Some others (among many) to look out for are Azerbaijan's Bolinha, Italy's Alex Merlim, Slovenia's Igor Osredkar, Croatia's Dario Marinović and Finland captain Panu Autio, who travelled to the 2007 finals in Portugal as a fan but is now leading his team in the tournament with more than 100 international goals to his name.