Tuesday – 22/07/14

With the team facing an early flight on the 22nd (7:30am) and a very tough match schedule in the EURO’s (5 matches in 7 days or 6 matches if in the semi’s or in the final) – preparations were ongoing for a month until the night before departing. The squad tried to get an early night in and a lot of sleep before departing (although it was difficult due to the excitement).

We woke up around 4:30am and placed on our fresh batch of tracksuits offered by SKkits. We all organized to meet at Brunel University Kingston Lane roundabout at 5:30am to take the 3 taxi’s that took us to Heathrow Airport, all generously paid for by the University. The adventure it seemed had already commenced despite us not even being there yet! Such was the buzz for the competition it was only normal that the predominant topic in the taxi, then airport and then airplane was related to the tournament, Futsal and our past season/achievements.

However, what we didn’t know was that the EU Games would present a serious test to our team unity…

 

Arrival in Rotterdam:

Upon arrival at Rotterdam Airport we took a shuttle (free for EU Games athletes and staff towards the Erasmus University of Rotterdam. The campus is huge! Some of us thought that the Brunel campus was quite nice bug wait until you see this campus. It was so big that we almost got lost there on the first day looking for the accreditation staff members!

I remember telling everybody from the team how the organizers of the EU Games are super organized as the University of York players who went last year had passed me this message. Ironically, when we finally got to the accreditation hall we had to wait approximately 3 hours to get our accreditation cards as one of the organizing heads was not present as he was sick. This delayed the process as he was apparently, the only person who had the permission to credit players and teams. While we waited in the 32 degree heat we realized that although we looked really good with matching kits (tracksuits) it was probably a better idea had we chosen to wear something a lot lighter. Not necessarily the most ideal start to the tournament.

After receiving the accreditation cards we had lunch at the University (all paid for and part of the package) where the food was a slight disappointment though we could eat as much salad as we wanted. Later on our captain, Pouria Barvand and Head Coach Janio Cruz had to attend a meeting with other team members and EU organizers. We learnt on the afternoon that we were drawn with The University of Paris (1st seed) and Lietuvos Sportos Universitas (3rd seed). A very difficult group, much to our luck! The French team who later went on to become the Champions were highly regarded (and we had seen them play previously too…) and the Lithuanian team was well prepared, physically fit, compact and were arguably the strongest 3rd seed along with Germany (University of Munster). This didn’t, however, derail our confidence. It only made us more eager to continue proving to everybody what an excellent team we have!

So to the accommodation we went (after looking for it for 2 hours due to lack of signalizing and information in Rotterdam) and some sleep we conquered.

 

Wednesday 23/07:

After having slept in the accommodation for the first night the team woke up at 11am to recover from waking up extremely early the previous morning and to train at 12:30am in a court ’10 minutes away from campus’. As we arrived at the campus (luckily, early) we were escorted by EU Games Volunteers for 45 minutes to the venue. We trained for one hour and proceeded to returning to the Campus for lunch (which was available between 12:00 and 15:00). It was also the 1st day of official Futsal matches but unfortunately for us we had a day-off on the very first day! That was bad because it meant we’d have to play 5 games in the next 5 days and as some key players such as myself, Adi and Yassin were ‘injured’ or had a few knocks. Consequently, we lacked the depth we were known for having the squad lacked the depth it usually has and we would need to rely on the fitness of 6 or 7 players too much and also couldn’t afford any more injuries. It also didn’t help that key players; Sergio Garcia and Omar Yassin (who was a standout fresher by the way) could not compete.

In the afternoon we watch our opponents France and Lithuania square off against each other. It was an exciting game but we tried not to watch the spectacle but to study our opponents instead. As expected, the French team who featured 6 players from the National team (4 of whom are professionals) beat Lithuania 6-1. We also realized that despite France’s dominance, Lithuania lacked some sort of defensive cohesion and some of their players were often caught watching the ball and not their player or zone (which in Futsal is INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT!) but were a very good counter-attacking side. As we play a possession orientated game we had to be very careful with this as we were at times caught sleeping in defense versus the counter-attack.

We then proceeded to the accommodation and slept in preparation for our 1st encounter the following day.

 

Thursday 24/07:

It was simply imperative that we got to the court 2 hours before we play. We had 45 minutes of warm-up time before our game but we required more time to go over with our coach the best methods to exploit Lithuania’s defense and to mentally prepare for what would be the biggest game ever for Brunel Futsal!

Heading into the game we were naturally very confident of ourselves as we had not lost a meaningful game for Brunel since February 2013. That is a very long time and so a winning mentality was accrued as a consequence of tasting victory too many times. We are a team which is not used to losing. Losing is not a part of our culture and we take training and development very seriously. Myself, Alex Sykes and captain Pouria Barvand tried to assume a leadership role (but as you’ll find out it didn’t necessarily work out for me or Alex).

As the game kicked-off Lithuania hit the post in the opening 10 seconds of their very first attack. On the following play we almost scored from an attack led by Jake and Adi. Despite both teams being nervous (Lithuania needed a win at all costs to progress and we needed a win to qualify and to ensure a ‘rest day’). The 1st half was end to end with both teams keeping possession tidily and both teams defending half-court. We were the most dangerous team in the 1st half as we had 20 shots to their 11. Pedro, Furmaan Khan and Bradley Johnson had the best chances to put Brunel ahead but all failed to hit the target when the opportunity arose. Unfortunately for us, there is a famous saying in Futsal used in Brazil which played to its words and translated reads ‘The team that doesn’t score will concede’ and that is precisely what happened. Just when we looked like the better team and were imposing ourselves on the opposition, Lithuania with a counter-attack on the right hand side made a 1-2 play and their winger followed with an effort which keeper Alex Sykes parried to the middle and the rebound was finished by the Lithuanian pivot. Lietuvos Sportos Universitas 1 – 0 Brunel University going into the 2nd half.

At the break we were reminded by our coach, Janio Cruz that we had been behind before and we managed to turn the deficit around and win. The discourse was the same this time around and he pleaded for better finishing and more calm in our attacking third. The strategy was set. Play the same way, don’t lose possession as Lithuania are good on the counter and finish when the opportunity arises. However, Lithuania got a goal right in the beginning of the 2nd half and so we opted for the strategic ‘power-play’ The power-play is when the goalkeeper becomes an outfielder and you play 5 versus 4 to gain numerical advantage to have a better opportunity to score. The main risk with this is you leave your own goal exposed if you lose the ball as it would be open. We opted for this and pulled one back with 4 minutes remaining making it 2-1 with Furmaan Khan opening our account. However, with 20 seconds left in the game we opted to double-team pressure (leaving one of their players free as a consequence) and they scored. Final score: Lithuania 3 – 1 United Kingdom.

The changing room was silent. It was a horrible feeling. We lost a winnable game. Lithuania were less fit than we were as they had played a very intense game with France the previous day. Despite the Lithuanian side being better than almost anything we faced last season in the BUCS (bar Loughborough University in the final) it was a humbling and necessary experience to eventually be defeated. We knew it would be bound to happen in this competition despite our confidence. It was also a feeling the freshers didn’t get to taste with the Futsal team as we were undefeated Champions of everything we played in last season (BUCS Futsal Premier League and BUCS Championship). What also weighed heavily is that we needed a result the following day on tired legs against France (University of Paris Pantheon-Sorbonne) last years finalists who featured 6 French National team players and one of the favourites to the title this year (they later became the Champs) and whom had already had a days rest and so our prospects were bleak.

 

Friday 25/07

We woke up and set our minds on France. Could we scrape a win? Having trained lightly the previous night for this the consensus was a resounding ‘YES!’. Though I believe this was said mostly to keep our heads up as deep down most of us knew we were in for the toughest challenge of our lives, The discrepancy in resources were huge! With all due respect to Brunel, the French side had 5 members of staff, we had 1. They trained 5 times a week, we trained twice if we were lucky (we had 2 slots a week but 1 slot was the day after a match which we never used if we played…). They featured 11 players who played in their National League, we featured 3. They have 6 National team players and we have 1 who plays for the England ‘B’ team (the development squad). We knew that only a miracle and a major sacrifice on our bodies would we be able to achieve the unattainable.

Our tactic for this game was to be as unpredictable as possible and so we took a major gamble – using the power-play early in the game and different sets from the back (3-1 and double pivot 2-2 sets) to try and throw them off guard.

The match began and as expected France kept possession with intensity and we were very careful with our marking. It is hard to mark France man to man as they do not play a pre-defined set from the back. Instead, they play an advanced and unorthodox professional style of all players constantly changing directions as a team to get free to receive the ball. The ideal way to mark them is to utilize a full court full pressure but we didn’t train this enough nor did we have enough ‘fit’ players to utilize this.

France got the lead after 6 minutes and we were on the retreat straight away. Instantly, we reverted to the power-play (5 versus 4 with a ‘rush goalkeeper’ in layman terms). Our inability to keep possession during the fly-keeper (which is also known as power-play) gifted France a further 5 open goals. We went into the half losing 6-0.

In the 2nd half, we abandoned the fly-keeper tactics and stuck to a mixture of full-court pressure and half-court counter-attack defense. They scored only a further 2 and we lost a heavy 8-0 to an excellent side. The game ended and some of our players were consoled by the French. They were classy and told us to keep our heads held high and that they have too been heavily defeated before. It was a huge learning curve. I know that I learnt a lot for sure playing against some of those professional players! I did however feel deflated after the game and began to question our abilities after such a defeat. Strangely, this type of learning experience was one of the beauties of this competition.

After the game we found out we would be competing for positions 17th to 24th and that we would be facing Ondukus Mayis, the Turkish vice-champions as they also finished 3rd in their group also. After watching them play versus the Ukraine and Germany we knew that were a good attacking side (better than us in that regard) but were hugely undisciplined defensively.

We regrouped and thought about ways to defeat them before we slept.

 

Saturday 26/07

We woke up and made our way to the Rotterdam Top Sport Centre. We had an early match (11am) as ‘punishment’ for finishing bottom in our groups. The Turkish team had a days rest and we were still tired and deflated from the previous night (France). As a result, we thought we’d use the boring tactic of sitting back to conserve energy in defense and use our energies only to counter-attack which we are pretty good at anyways.

As the game played out – Turkey looked dangerous attacking but we presented the ‘bend but don’t break defense’ which essentially means to allow the opponents to attack deep in our half but not let them shoot (or if they do it gets blocked). For the neutral fan who has never watched Futsal they would assume we were getting dominated. For those that understand Futsal would know that we were very disciplined defensively and didn’t allow them to get comfortable. They had a particularly dangerous left-footer that wore number 7 was quite difficult to keep at bay.

The match largely played out this way and we were winners at 5-4. Our tactics worked but we were exhausted after the game due to 3 tough games being played in 3 days. The squad then decided we should have a light celebration and some went out to Rotterdam city cent. Others, had met the Women’s Dutch Handball team and decided to hang out with them (me included). It finally felt great to win again despite the thought of the 2 losses being in the back of our minds again.

However, we recognize that this competition is very professional and it wouldn’t be easy. Thus far, the experience was simply amazing! We learnt after the Turkey game that we’d face the Polish Champions at 9am the following day…

 

 

Sunday 27/07

We woke up early and headed to the Top Sport Arena for our 4th game in 4 days. We were defeated 6-3 but a good Polish team. The game was very balanced though and we were even up at 3-2 before conceding 4 in the last 5 minutes. This could be due to fatigue or simply lack of discipline but it is what it is – another loss. After this loss, the changing room ambience was not the same and some senior players (myself included) got into a heated discussion with other players with regards to our discipline. I had argued that the players were not listening to instructions and not following the game-plan, others (the majority) argued back that some had gone out the previous night and didn’t rest properly – leading to a dip in performance. Both sides in fairness were correct but for the first time we didn’t look like a team.

Players were trying to win the game on their own – not sharing the ball when they had to. Others failing to defend against their player and instead trying to double up on opposing players and players like myself and a few others looked absolutely exhausted with 10 minutes left (possibly due to overt celebrations the night before).

Regardless of what it is that went wrong. We needed to play our final game the following morning (9am) against a strong Finnish side – the Tampere Technical University to fight for 19th place (As Poland would fight for thie title of ‘best of the rest’ after defeating us).

We went back to the accommodation and decided to relax, ice up any knocks we had and rest. Myself and a few others decided to take the opportunity to spend some time with the French Male Futsal team (the one that heavily defeated us), the German Mens team, the Womens Dutch Handball team, the Portuguese Womens Handball team and some players from the Lithuania Mens Futsal team (also defeated us). This tournament also presented a great opportunity to network with others and as a result some of us made acquaintances or at the very least had an extra European contact with athletes from other nations

We were invited by the Germans to participate in an annual tournament in Munich and by the Finnish team to visit Finland for a rematch/friendly game. The Lithuanians and the girls were in a festive mood with the end of their respective campaigns (though we still had a game the following day) and so wanted to party with us. All of these things made this an unforgettable experience!

 

Monday 28/07

A cagey and very balanced game against the Finnish champs led to a 2-1 win. They presented 2 players who play for the Finnish National team and were a very good team. Their captain is a good player. 20th position in the ranking probably wasn’t what they deserved after being placed in a very tough group, similar to us (though we didn’t perform too well). Finally, we finished at 19th place (3rd best for the ‘best of the bottom’ contest)

A celebration was overdue and so we all dined in the city centre and some of us went out at night with other universities (mainly the Dutch and the Lithuanians).