Higuita: I'm incredibly proud people say I changed the way futsal is played

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Kazakhstan's Leo Higuita

  • Leo Higuita has been named futsal’s best goalkeeper in five of the last six years
  • He raves about his Kazakhstan team-mates Taynan and Douglas
  • The Brazil-born player discusses their targets at Lithuania 2021

“Goalkeepers will never be named the best season after season like the Messis and Ronaldos,” said Manuel Neuer. “One mistake and you’ve had a bad year.”

Indeed no-one has ever won the FIFA World Cup™ Golden Glove more than once, no-one has won The Best FIFA Men’s Goalkeeper on multiple occasions and five goalkeepers have won the six Best Goalkeeper awards at the Beach Soccer Stars ceremonies.

The same doesn’t apply to futsal. Leo Higuita, despite not playing for one of its megapower clubs and elite nations, has remarkably been named its best goalkeeper in five of the past six years. Despite that, the modest 35-year-old still bitterly rues a mistake he made at the FIFA Futsal World Cup Colombia 2016™.

In a chat with FIFA.com, he discusses that, raves about two of his Kazakhstan team-mates, and outlines his expectations for Lithuania 2021.

FIFA.com: How would you evaluate Kazakhstan’s Colombia 2016 campaign?

Leo Higuita: That we could have gone further, without doubt. There are two negative points from my career – things that upset me whenever the subject arises. One was my sending off against Benfica in the Champions League. It was such a difficult time because of the pandemic, but Kairat managed to build such a strong team that had everything to become champions. I committed a foul and was sent off and I missed the semi-final against Barcelona, which we lost by a goal. I feel responsible. And the first one was at the World Cup in 2016. It really pains me to think about it. I gifted Argentina a goal and we lost 1-0.

If we’d have drawn that game we’d have won the group – we had a much better goal difference – and had a much easier run in the knockout phase. Argentina got Ukraine and Egypt. We got Spain and lost a really hard-fought game. The Argentinian players still owe me a beer for that! The Russians should be thanking us too, because they ended up playing a destroyed Spain team in the quarter-finals. Argentina went on to win the competition. If I hadn’t made that mistake, who knows? I’ll feel responsible for the rest of my life.

What was the experience of being at a Futsal World Cup like?

Wow, wow. To play in a World Cup, it’s the ultimate experience – not just in futsal but in football, beach soccer. It only happens every four years and the whole sport is enraptured by it. Just to be there, there’s such a buzz around the place. And on the court you have all these world powers. Every game is like a war. You won’t believe what the World Cup in 2016 did for futsal in our country. People were getting up at 2am, 3am to watch our games. We’d be getting messages at 6am saying, ‘I can’t sleep – you guys are incredible.’ We had a whole country involved in our games. I don’t have words to describe how that makes you feel.

In the final round of qualifying for Lithuania 2021, Kazakhstan lost their first game against Romania and were losing their second with just minutes remaining. How did it feel to pull off that incredible comeback against Slovenia and get the victory over Czech Republic you needed to qualify?

It was such a mix of emotions. Against Romania we were the overwhelming favourites. We massacred them but, my word, some of the saves their goalkeeper [Toni Tonita] pulled off were mind-blowing. We could have played until midnight, 3am and we wouldn’t have won that game. But we knew this happens in futsal, so we didn’t let it get to us.

We said, ‘Let’s go out and beat Slovenia’. We were confident, it was still in our own hands. Then with two minutes to go we were 3-2 down. We wouldn’t have even finished second and reached the playoffs. Man, so much is going through your head. You know the clock is running down. You’re desperate. But we kept fighting hard, equalised and then got a winner. Incredible, what a feeling. But we quickly had to forget it and focus on our final game. We knew that to finish above Czech Republic we’d have to win by three goals. This game us even more motivation – we played it like it was a World Cup game, a final, and we won 5-2. Sport is amazing.

What did you think of Kazakhstan’s group draw?

Being honest, there are groups that are much tougher. Venezuela are no pushovers. They surprised everyone in the South American qualifiers, and futsal is South American. I think Venezuela will be our biggest rivals. Costa Rica are always at World Cups and looked really good at the Concacaf qualifiers. They have the potential to cause a surprise and we have to be wary of them. Lithuania are the hosts and there will be the added excitement of playing against the host nation. At the World Cup you have to take every team seriously, but overall I think we’ve avoided the major powers. The group with Argentina, Iran and Serbia is really tough.

Kazakhstan lost 5-2 to Spain in 2016, but drew 5-5 with them at the UEFA Futsal EURO in 2018 and gave Russia two very tight games. Do you think Kazakhstan are a better team now than they were in Colombia?

Without doubt. And it’s because of Kazakhstanis. They always had the ability but now they’re stronger, quicker and, crucially, have a better understanding of the game. Beforehand the team depended a lot of us foreigners. I’m not saying we’re not still important – I think we’re all at our peaks – but the Kazakhstanis have taken their game to another level. It’s a World Cup, anything can happen, but I think we’re a better team than we were in 2016.

What is Kazakhstan’s target at Lithuania 2021?

As a team, we haven’t yet set a target. But me, Higuita, I always want to do better than before, so I want to reach the quarter-finals at the very least. We’ve been on a great run and we’re among the best six or seven teams in the world. I don’t want to set the bar too high, say we’ll reach the semi-finals or the final. I definitely want to reach the quarter-finals and so much rests on the group stage. If you finish top, you generally have a considerably easier game in the Round of 16. Once you get to the quarter-finals, every team is of the highest quality. There are no favourites, with the exception of Brazil, who are the favourites to win every game. That said, Brazil lost to Iran at the last World Cup, so anything can happen.

What do you think of Taynan and Douglas as players?

Taynan’s a superstar. And he’s so much more. As well as having incredible talent, he thinks so quickly, has great know-how and is a real battler. I love playing with players like this – players who will give absolutely everything to win. He’s very different, unique. There’s no player like Taynan is world futsal today.

Douglas has been a revelation. I didn’t know who he was. No-one knew who he was. He’d only spent one year playing in Brazil, in Rio Grande do Norte. When he arrived at Kairat I thought he’d be just another player. Man, I’ve been blown away by him. He’s the best fixo in the world – by far. He’s so complete – he has everything. I’m really privileged to play alongside Douglas, Taynan and Leo, who is another outstanding player. It’s why I’ll be very frustrated if we don’t do well at this World Cup because we definitely have some of the best players in the world.

Who do you think is the best player in the world?

Ferrao continues dazzling, Taynan’s right up there, but for me it’s Douglas. He scores goals, nobody can get past him, he’s very intelligent, his understanding of the game is on another level, he’s so tough, will go for 40 minutes without needing a rest, and is a real winner. I don’t want to sound biased towards Kairat, but Douglas is without doubt the most complete player in the world and for me he’s the best. He’s a quiet guy, he keeps himself to himself. If he wasn’t he’d be in the news a lot more and would have a much bigger reputation.

In terms of being the best, how does it feel to have been elected futsal’s best goalkeeper in five of the last six years?

I look back on everything I missed out on during childhood and adolescence because I was playing football, all the sacrifices me and my family made, and I think, ‘It really was worth it.’ The dream was to become a professional, not to become the best. But to be named the best goalkeeper five times is wonderful. I love kids and a lot of kids will come to watch Kairat and excitedly tell their friends, ‘Today Higuita’s in goal – the best goalkeeper in the world. Today we will win.’ They expect a performance from the best goalkeeper in the world, so I enter the court determined not to disappoint the kids.

Speaking of entertainment, you’re renowned for assisting and scoring goals and changing the way futsal is played in Europe…

Goalkeepers in Brazil have been playing with their feet for years, but when I went to Europe it wasn’t the case. There had been goalkeepers who had been good with their feet, but they didn’t participate in the play as much. I’ve always enjoyed making passes, scoring goals. The way we won our first Champions League with Kairat was something else – we played very offensively, aggressively with five players. We took everybody by complete surprise, nobody could handle us. At that point I think a lot of people still thought it was a one-off, but when we won our second Champions League in three seasons – we reached the semi-finals in between – other teams woke up, looked at how we played and realised they had to change their way. A new era of futsal began.

People say I changed the way the game is played. It makes me, my family, my friends unbelievably proud. I think there have been goalkeepers who were equally as good, even better, with their feet, but I was fortunate that Kairat believed in me as a fifth outfield player. When you hear futsal legends telling you you changed the way an entire sport is played, I feel incredibly proud and emotional.

Finally, do you ever think about what would have happened if you’d have chosen to represent Brazil?

Yes. I think that today I would be in the squad, but I don’t know if I’d be first-choice. When I was called up by the Brazilian national team the first-choice was Tiago, and then came Guitta – two outstanding goalkeepers. The competition for places is exceptionally fierce in Brazil. Maybe if I’d chosen the Seleção I’d be Guitta’s back-up now. I remember Kairat played Atlantico Erechim in the final of the world championship in 2015, and when I heard the Brazilian anthem I suddenly got emotional. It was totally unexpected. But everything happens for a reason. I love Brazil but I have fallen in love with Kazakhstan too. The people are wonderful and it gives me great pride to represent my club and my country.

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