Futsal thriving in Australia

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Walking down any main street in any inner Melbourne suburb, you’ll find nary a telegraph pole, community centre window or IGA supermarket that isn’t adorned with a leaflet, complete with pull off tabs, for a local futsal league. Often multiple flyers are hung adjacent to one another, such is the proliferation of the sport in the Victorian capital. A simple Google search of “Play Futsal Melbourne” produces a stuffed results page, with a dozen or more different organisations begging for your custom. Everywhere, social plans are scuppered because of futsalling obligations, and anyone who has played the game knows just how much difference having a substitute makes. Australia seems to be hungry to play futsal.

From the outside looking in, the indoor version of the beautiful game seems a much less demanding variety than its turf-based cousin, but these assumptions usually come from those who haven’t trudged off a school gymnasium somewhere, lungs racked with deathly fatigue, shirt drenched with liquid effort, and ankles throbbing from the soles of portly tackle enthusiasts. The smaller court means much less distance to cover, but it also offers up its own unique issues; the sticky playing surface and the increased stop-start nature of the play means hell for hips, knees and ankles. In football, a winger whose flank is uninvolved with the play gets a rest of sorts, becomes a thankful, recovering spectator on the far side. No such respite exists in futsal and with only 4 outfield players plus a goalkeeper, everyone is a striker, everyone is a defender, and as such, all physical responsibilities are largely shared. In short, it’s a deceptively cardio-heavy experience.

Still, what fun it is, high-scoring, quick, technical and exciting. The less bouncy, smaller ball means there are less cringe-worthy moments of ineptitude when attempting controlling touches, and kick-ins from the sidelines and throw-ins in lieu of goal kicks make for a snappy sporting demeanour. Tackles from behind are strictly forbidden, as are slide tackles, or any play while on the ground, all designed to dissuade roughness. Impeccable technical skills are rewarded lavishly, as is cohesive team chemistry, so it’s no wonder that the Mecca of the game, as with football, is that nursery of the step-over, the elastico and the roulette, Brazil.

Brazilian boys and girls tend to spend the majority of their formative years on a court somewhere, practising their toe-pokes, their step-overs. The story goes that every footballer in Brazil is firstly trained on a futsal type court, with a ball similarly suited to honing fine technique, before they graduate, with all the skills now learnt, to football proper. Brazil is, and has been for a while, the number one ranked futsal nation in the world, followed by the equally tippy-tappy obsessed Spain. You can see the logic in Brazil’s right of passage, and the evidence is compelling. Some of the world’s most technically gifted footballers have credited futsal for moulding them as players. You need only look at the astounding close control of the Brazil legend Ronaldo to realise how much the tight environment of futsal must have shaped his evolution as a footballer, but he also happens to have said as much as well.

I needed extremely good feet, because you’re always attempting to beat opponents in the minimum of space. I loved the challenge of playing on such a small pitch,

Ronaldinho, Robinho, Neymar, all of them honed their feet on the futsal court. Athletes sometimes even choose to forgo the pursuit of a football career and make one solely playing the indoor game, the most celebrated of which in Brazil is Falcao, a player of such sublime skill, of such audacity and genius, his highlight reel is barely within the bounds of possibility.

Spain, too, can thank futsal for for helping to deliver them a golden generation of staggeringly talented, and tiny, midfield dribble-pixies. Their icon, Xavi, has also spoken of the value of the indoor game:

In futsal, you see whether a player is really talented. In normal football you don’t necessarily identify talent as easily because it’s so much more physical. But with futsal, you notice the small details in quality, class and tactical understanding.

The point that the Barcelona captain makes is an interesting one. How indeed could a player the size of a pre-pubescent (or indeed, adult) Lionel Messi hope to survive and progress at youth level only playing the full size version of the sport? That Messi has such exquisite close control allows him now to not only survive, but dominate an athletic contest despite being much smaller than nearly all of his opponents. Messi is, unsurprisingly, a child of futsal too:

As a little boy in Argentina, I played futsal on the streets and for my club. It was tremendous fun, and it really helped me become who I am today,

This glittering list of footballers and their testimonies make a convincing case that futsal is an essential stepping stone. And the fact that the sport has hop-stepped its way over to Australia can only be a good thing. The futsal national side, the Futsalroos, made it to the AFF Championship final this month, only to lose to Thailand. Still, Australia, according to the ELO-based rankings system, currently sit inside the top 25 international sides, in 23rd to be precise. Thailand are 17th, for the record. In a survey performed 10 years ago, indoor soccer was already more highly participated in by Australians 15 years and older than rugby league and rugby union. That number can only have risen in the years since. Another very welcome figure from a later survey, this time done in 2009, shows that the participation rate in football codes by women is significantly higher in indoor soccer than in Aussie Rules, League or Union, on par with touch football and only behind outdoor soccer. Dissolving the barriers between ‘mens’ and ‘womens’ sports is something futsal is at the forefront of doing, with mixed leagues becoming increasingly popular.

The fact that nations which excel in futsal also happen to excel in football isn’t coincidental. The World Cup wealthy countries of Brazil, Spain, Italy and Argentina make up 4 of the world’s top 5 futsal-playing nations. Australia are ranked 61 places better in futsal than football, but the growth of the indoor game will only help the Socceroos. Technical proficiency is something for which Australian football has not been traditionally known, with rigourous physicality being more the hallmark of Socceroos teams of the past. But as futsal continues to thrive, so does the likelihood of more and more Australian boys and girls signing up to hone their nimble feet and footballing minds on a futsal court. And with this, an Aussie Neymar, or Xavi, or Messi, maybe smaller than the others but with just as much promise, will be given the nurturing environment to blossom into a champion.

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