England's futsal team are on their best ever run and Doug Reed and Agon Rexha speak to UEFA.com about this week's preliminary round and the game's growth.
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England have been one of European futsal's minnows but the events of 2014 suggest that is changing.
They played 12 matches last year, winning eight (from an all-time tally of 30 victories) and drawing two. Indeed, they are on a run of five straight wins, two more than they have previously achieved, and those last four came via double-header defeats of Latvia – with both games St George's Park sell-outs – and Andorra. England meet both sides again this week when they travel to Malta for UEFA Futsal EURO 2016 preliminary round Group E.
While Pete Sturgess's national team go from strength to strength, club champions Baku United FC have become the first from the English league to reach the UEFA Futsal Cup elite round. Part of that side are England players are Doug Reed – out this week through injury – and captain Agon Rexha. They spoke to UEFA.com about England's task in Malta, where they will attempt to progress to a main round group featuring Russia, the Netherlands and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
UEFA.com: What do you think of your three opponents?
Doug Reed: Latvia, I think, will be favourites on paper but we have a strong chance to make it. We've beaten all the teams before, I don't see why we can't do it again and go on to the next round.
Agon Rexha: It will be difficult. Latvia are a good side, Andorra, Malta you have got to respect all the teams in the group. But we are looking forward to it and we can pass again.
UEFA.com: Is it a great incentive to try and get through to play the three top teams you could have in the main round?
Rexha: It will definitely be a massive experience for us as a nation and also for the lads, playing against teams like Russia and Holland – it will be amazing. I am looking forward to that challenge.
Reed: Everyone with England really wants to test themselves against the best players and teams, and Russia would be a great opportunity. If you want to be the best, you want to compete with the best, you have to play the best. It might mean learning from that in the early stages, but we'll improve and it will be a real boost.
UEFA.com: How much confidence has it given to the squad that last time the England team did make the main round?
Reed: The experience that we have qualified before means that everyone knows what's required to make it to the main round. Everyone knows the feeling that you get when you qualify, and we all want that feeling again and want that experience again – that's why you're in the sport.
UEFA.com: How close do you think England are to qualifying for a major tournament?
Reed: At the moment, it's difficult to see England qualifying for the final tournament. Not because of the quality of the players but because of the fact our league's not competitive and our players are not all full time. We've seen the England team grow as more players have gone full time, as the league's grown and got more competitive. I think that has to continue for us to have a chance of getting to the final tournament.
Rexha: I think we have improved a lot in the last five or six years. So it is not going to be long until you see us on the main stage.
UEFA.com: How much does it help the squad already that you now have some professionals like yourselves in the squad?
Reed: I think you've seen, as more players have gone professional in the England team, the England team's progressed and their standard's increased. The other players as well have really improved, even though they are trying to juggle jobs and futsal; they have shown great progress and great work ethic to help the England team.
UEFA.com: Have the facilities at St George's Park been a big help?
Rexha: Yes, definitely – they're amazing. There is a great hotel, great facilities, loads of professionals there, so sometimes you get to see the senior football team there, it's a really nice feeling being there. It's like you are in a different world, a real confidence-booster.
UEFA.com: How is the awareness of futsal in England growing?
Reed: It's great that during the World Cup in Brazil people were talking about futsal. I think a lot of people still don't realise there is an elite level here in England and great growth at the grassroots level. Obviously Baku are doing really well in the elite level. Futsal is a great game, it just needs people to be aware of it. Once the awareness is there, the game is just going to grow so fast and become a really important sport in England.