Italy started UEFA Futsal EURO 2014 with a surprise defeat; less than a fortnight later they were champions after beating a Russia side that ended Spain's nine-year reign.
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In football, Italy have had a reputation for starting tournaments slowly and then hitting top gear when needed – the 1982 FIFA World Cup, for example. That perfectly sums up their victory at UEFA Futsal EURO 2014.
Defeated in their opener, they improved match by match until delighting a crowd of nearly 12,000 at Antwerp's Sportpaleis with a virtually flawless 3-1 win against Russia, who two nights before had dramatically ended Spain's bid for a fifth straight title. Italy's success, their second after the 2003 home triumph, was based on a great team unit, with even bit-part players like Massimo De Luca and Murilo making vital contributions when it mattered. However, a core including superb goalkeeper Stefano Mammarella, captain Gabriel Lima, the creative Saad Assis and forward Fortino performed stellar roles.
From the start Italy, Russia, Spain and Portugal were expected to tussle for the title and indeed all made the semi-finals, but not always smoothly. While Russia and Portugal both comfortably beat the Netherlands before a 4-4 draw in which Eder Lima scored an outrageous overhead equaliser, Italy lost their opener 3-2 to Slovenia. Spain, meanwhile, were held 3-3 by a late equaliser from Croatia flying goalkeeper Matija Capar, who repeated the trick two days later against the Czech Republic.
However, both Spain and Italy comfortably won their next games to top their groups, the holders 8-1 versus the Czech Republic, the Azzurri 7-0 against Azerbaijan. However, hosts Belgium, having lost 6-1 to Romania, were held 0-0 by Ukraine. Previously 1-0 victors against Romania, Ukraine were the first team to get through a UEFA Futsal EURO group without conceding.
In the quarter-finals, though, they lost 2-1 to Portugal, the same scoreline by which Italy beat Croatia, who proved their run to fourth place as 2012 hosts was no fluke. Spain saw off Slovenia 4-0 and Russia beat Romania 6-0, two flawless displays to set up a much-anticipated semi-final.
Spain had beaten Russia in the 2012 decider after equalising late in normal time, and they levelled in similar style again. However, a game considered one of futsal's finest ever was settled 66 seconds from the end when Robinho made it 4-3 to Russia, ending Spain's nine-year unbeaten run against European teams.
Italy had also defeated Portugal 4-3 but for most were outsiders going into the final. However, on the day they were clearly superior to Russia. Gabriel Lima scored the first and then, after Eder Lima equalised to seal the adidas Golden Shoe on eight goals, made another for Murilo, only called up on the eve of the finals. Daniel Giasson struck just before half-time, and when Russia's Cirilo was dismissed for the second final running, the die was cast.
Gabriel Lima, many people's player of the finals, summed it up to UEFA.com: "Our squad was the key to our success here. Look at Murilo, who was the last player to be added to the squad and today he scored the winner in the final."