Kazakhstan’s Higuita has given the UEFA Futsal EURO 2022 technical team food for thought.
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The UEFA Futsal EURO 2022 technical observers reflect on the group stage action.
The first 16-team UEFA European Futsal Championship group stage has been a success, with Miguel Rodrigo explaining: "Any expansion in terms of numbers always raises questions about a potential drop in quality. But the four newcomers – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland, Georgia and Slovakia – have responded very positively here in the Netherlands. They have been brave. They have been prepared to take the game to opponents and to run risks, rather than sit deep and focus on defence."
Futsal is the FIFA-recognised form of small-sided indoor football (the word is a contraction of the Spanish 'fútbol sala'). It is played between two teams who each have five players on the pitch at any one time, with rolling substitutes and a smaller ball than soccer that is harder and less bouncy.
The small amount of space means players must have great technique and skill, and as well as a professional sport in its own right with national and international championships, it is also considered a development tool for 11-a-side football.
Rodrigo, a two-time champion of Asia during a memorable seven-year spell in charge of Japan's national futsal team, is at UEFA Futsal EURO 2022 as a technical observer alongside Mato Stanković, who led Croatia through three Futsal EUROs and is currently coaching in Saudi Arabia.
During the group stage, they have reflected on the high tempo of games (provoking a greater prevalence of man-to-man marking); the structural versatility of teams equipped to operate with or without a pivot as the reference point of their attack; and a tendency to execute set plays with fewer touches. The most eye-catching trend, however, has been a radical re-writing of the goalkeeper's job description.
In recent years, Kazakhstan’s Leonardo Leite, alias Higuita, has been a spectacular exception to the general rule of keepers focused exclusively on shot-stopping or protecting the defensive D. His game-changing ability to make upfield runs and unleash powerful long-range shots has, on the evidence of the tournament in the Netherlands, created a new school.
"Teams are implementing different systems using the goalkeeper as an outfield player," Stanković noted. "The aim is to surprise the opposition and disturb their rhythm. At the same time, the challenge is to do this as simply as possible and to minimise the risks."
The risk element of leaving nets unguarded has added spice to the group stage. Loss of possession by Bosnia and Herzegovina with their keeper upfield allowed Georgia to equalise and change the run of the game in their 2-1 victory.
Even Higuita himself, often allowed to run unopposed while opponents drop into a defensive formation, was pressed and dispossessed, allowing Denis Totošković to put Slovenia 1-0 up in the opening Group B game. He then made amends in the following match by producing a trademark run and powerhouse finish to pull Kazakhstan back to 2-2 against debutants Finland.
This is one of the topics that the observers will keep their eyes on as the tournament heads into the knockout rounds – and will appear in the UEFA Technical Report they will compile in the aftermath of UEFA Futsal EURO 2022.