Part 3 of the fantastic and detailed report on our game from Dan de Nardi
This is the final part of the three part report on the history and current state of Futsal in Australia. A big thanks to Dan de Nardi for his detailed investigation and report on the game we all love.
Improving results in a tough Asian confederation, a sixth world cup appearance beckoning in Thailand this November, a second national Hummel F-League series underway, strong competitions in NSW and Victoria – the Australian Futsal house is looking quite tidy these days.
It’s certainly come a long way from the PCYC days of the 1980s. Modern facilities, structured coaching and better officiating has helped clubs attract almost 150,000 men, women and junior players to their playing courts – plenty of them families.
Summer NSW Premier and Super League competitions and the winter Melbourne Futsal League have succeeded in enticing the country’s best to strengthening clubs, and grassroots development has been an obvious driving force for Australia’s gradual international improvement.
The correlation certainly isn’t lost on Futsalroos assistant coach Rob Varela, who’s guided unbeaten Dural to the top of the 2012 Hummel F-League and called the competition a vital cog in developing the player quality necessary for Australia to perform credibly on the world stage.
He should know, he and Futsalroos head coach Steve Knight will be coaching plenty of F-Leaguers at this year’s world cup (November 1-18).
“As well as the prospect of competing in Asia, the players see the F-League as a way to impress national coaches. If they play well at this level then they can’t but help their cause to one day play at a world cup,” he said.
“I fully embrace a national league concept. I think we do need it to help our overall playing standard and Australia’s international standing. It gives players and referees and coaches vital experience under proper FIFA rules (stop-clock, international standards).
“It is a very different game tactically and some players thrive on that sort of pressure, so the F-League gives Steve and I an idea of who can cope with those conditions. Personally there are a several players who’ve impressed me, stepped up, and made a good impression.”
There’s no argument the Hummel F-League provides the perfect platform for Australia’s best players to pit themselves against each other, with dual carrots of representing the country at an Asian club championships and catching the eye of national selectors dangling enticingly in front of participants.
According to F-League competition manager Damian Briggs, Futsalroos success is also paramount to gaining greater media exposure and mainstream penetration for Futsal in general, and he couldn’t speak highly enough of Australia’s stunning Asian qualifying campaign to make this year’s world finals.
“What the Futsalroos achieved this year was outstanding,” he said. “They had a limited budget to begin with and when they qualified for the AFC championships it put even more strain on the budget; and they still qualified for the world cup with some amazing performances!”
“Because of that we’ve had [Dural star] Greg Giovenali interviewed on Foxtel, and Australia’s Futsal community is really excited about November’s World Cup… just about every Futsalroo is running around in this year’s F-League.
“Having Australian teams do well shows kids they can play through the ranks, represent their state at nationals, take part in an elite competition like the F-League and potentially make the Futsalroos.”
It’s why Briggs and F-League competition manager Damian Football NSW Futsal co-administrator Mathew Morrison put together a national league proposal in the first place.
Briggs had just returned from a trip to watch the 2011 New Zealand national league in action – Sydney-based Maccabi Hakoah had won the opening series after being invited across the Tasman by NZ Futsal manager David Payne.
Briggs knew it was a winner.
“I spoke to David and, based on their model, Matty [Morrison] and I worked out firstly if we could do it in Australia and secondly would it work,” he said.
The inaugural 2011 Hummel F-League was a virtual pilot program that six clubs from Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney stuck their hands up to be part of (Inner City, St Albans Strikers, Boomerangs, Dural Warriors, Maccabi Hakoah, Parramatta Blues).
They played 15 games each over three weekends (no stop-clock); Inner City won the minor premiership and Maccabi Hakoah beat St Albans 5-2 in the final (see highlights below) to earn a place at the AFC club championships.
“We knew it worked in New Zealand so we didn’t reinvent the wheel,” Briggs said. “All the games were held in Sydney [at Hawkesbury, Menai and Narrabeen] to keep resources close and cut down costs, and it was great for the players to test themselves against different techniques and skill sets.”
“The standard is even better this year. We’ve got more clubs involved [Boomerangs, Dural, East Coast Heat, Parramatta, Jaguars, Melbourne Heart, St Albans and Vic Vipers], and five weekend series played in three host cities [Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne], which is great for the club’s sponsors.”
A growing online presence has also boosted the league’s exposure with social media interest double last year’s figures.
F-League games from 2011 and 2012 have been uploaded to YouTube (click the link to view the highlights of dozens of matches), the competition’s Facebook page (FNSWFLeague) has attracted 1000 likes (add yours!) and hits from 30 different countries, the opening weekend drew a whopping 30,000 people for score updates, photos and news, while many others followed on Twitter (@thefleague).
As well as an interested and media-savvy fan base, Briggs praised the passionate efforts of his Football Federation Victoria equivalent Chris Ryan, volunteer videographer James Brackenrig and quality editorial support from Regan MacDonald at Futsal4All.com for generating so much interest in the F-League.
“James does a great job for us. He videos all our games, does highlights, gives teams a copy, gives referees a copy for their development, and does it all off his own back for the love of game. Without people like James at all the clubs there’s no way Futsal would even be here,” he said.
But you can sense the Futsal community wants more for its sport and there’s well-supported pushes to have the sport televised again, like it was in the 1980s, and eventually establish a true national league – finances sticking out as the biggest hurdle.
St Albans coach Robert Lakovski doesn’t doubt the sport is tailor-made for TV and said the benefits of national coverage were immense.
“Having it televised will take Futsal to the next level; it’s just a matter of getting it out there and having it better publicised,” he said. “The tabletop game Foosball is shown on Fox but we can’t get one of the most entertaining, fast-paced games in the world televised? That has to be the next step!”
Increased exposure, Rob Varela added, would ultimately enhance the reputation and popularity of Futsal and help attract greater sponsorship, Vipers chief Milton Sakkos adamant big-money backing was entirely possible.
“We’ve worked really hard this year, not only on getting a group of players together that want to play for the club, but also for their teammates and colleagues, and on the commercial side we’ve been lucky with good sponsors coming on board,” Sakkos said.
“We’re really trying to establish long-term relationships and our current major sponsor Tactix (a Shanghai-based storage solution systems business whose parent company is Meridian) already has us featured on their website.
“They’re very impressed with Futsal and what we’re trying to do with a national league in Australia. It goes to show that when people put their heads together, money can come from a variety of corporate areas.”
Certainly most sentiments support the notion that if it’s been done once [televised], it can be done again.
Briggs also eagerly recalls the old James Hardie sponsored National Indoor Soccer League, as a keen ball boy for the 1989 title-winning Western Sydney Swans.
(* Here’s footage of the 1989 NISL semi-final between White Eagles and Sydney Tornadoes hosted by Andy Paschalidis, and a 1987 Canberra Strikers vs Gridline Eagles game hosted by Johnny Warren)
A junior Briggs played at Fairfield Leisure Centre until he received the worst possible advice from his outdoor coach – stop playing indoor. He has since grown to be one of the sport’s most ardent supporters and knows from his early experiences that any Futsal success comes down to passionate people.
“I sat next to [Futsalroos coach, 2001-2009] Scott Gilligan every day when I came to work [at the Football NSW Futsal office] and he changed my whole mindset. He corrected the misconceptions I’d been taught as a kid,” Briggs said.
(* Gilligan took up a Futsal development position with Oceania Football Confederation in 2010, supported the New Zealand national league concept and is now coach of the Futsal Whites NZ team)
“But people involved in Futsal are already passionate about the sport; it’s breaking outside that circle and drawing other interest to make sure the game continues to grow. The games are fast-paced, good to watch, and I think if people saw it once they’d be hooked.
“I still remember my first national league game [a Swans match at Homebush]; There was a thousand people there. I’d never seen so many at a venue before. I can even remember they had an ETA 5-star butter promotion and everyone got a showbag. I’ve still got mine.”
“All the outdoor players were in it, like Milan Blagojevic, Abbas Saad, Steve Knight, and that’s not going to ever happen again; but they all developed their football skills with Futsal.
“Look at the boys playing in the A-League today: Mariners Mustafa Armini [now Borussia Dortmund] and Bernie Ibini-Isei played at Inner West Allstars, and Sydney FC players Nick Carle and Alex Brosque played with Sydney City, and Terry Atonis with Sydney Magic.”
“Our relationship [with football] does need more work. South America countries develop their juniors with small-sided games and you can see the benefits it’s had with their football standing,” he said.
“Futsal is a culture over there… and the dream here is to [one day] see Futsal as a mainstream sport in Australia.”
The first task Briggs recognised was to stabilise the national competition.
“There’s no magic number yet [maximum number of teams]. My personal preference, I would love it to be a true national competition and get Queensland and Western Australia involved, and South Australia too, hopefully.”
“But the cost to F-League clubs is $30,000 just to participate (for travel, accommodation, meals, etc), that’s just the situation we’re in. Some clubs will do better than others at getting sponsorship and some will fundraise themselves.
“TV is obviously the goal. We want to get it to a point where the cost impact isn’t as high as it is now; and what we need is funding and bigger sponsorship. Becoming semi-professional would also take the strain off some players being paid by outdoor clubs, so they don’t miss important Futsal games.
“But the competition has to be sustainable. It can’t run at a loss and become a drain on clubs or the sport,” Briggs said.
Double World Cup veteran and East Coast coach Jamie Amendolia also called for a measured approach to any expansion.
“There’s a lot up against Futsal [in Australia], the biggest being finances, so it’s a bit unrealistic at this stage to talk about a proper national league,” he said.
“The F-League is only in its infant years and a good stepping stone for the sport, but a true national competition is something we shouldn’t be thinking of for at least 4-5 years.”
But plenty of people are already thinking about it. Heart coach Edgard Vatcky said many clubs were positioning themselves for consideration in any Australian league.
“The main reason Heart got behind an F-League team was to increase its exposure… it’s about getting the game out there and showing everyone that Futsal can be played at the highest level. We’re definitely looking at helping the league become as professional as possible,” he said.
Jaguars coach Jack Dugonjic agreed. “We’re looking to build club commitment around a high-level F-League and we can only learn how to do that by being involved,” he said. “We’re building a young side and it’ll take time but it will happen, and I can only hope the people running the F-League are looking at that and planning for the future.”
Strikers mentor Lakovski said, “If you look at our history, we’ve been travelling for years. We’re looking at this as a long-term plan, we’re sensible about it… and any league that becomes more professional we’ll be putting our hands up to be involved in; we’d like to think we’d be among the first clubs picked.”
And Boomerangs leader Kristian Collins saw ACT involvement critical to any Australian league success.
“For a national league to get off the ground it’s certainly important to encompass clubs from as many states as possible, so I think it’s very important we’re involved,” he said. “But first the exposure has to be increased to build the resources and get all the players across the country to play these games, and the F-League is a good stepping stone toward that.”
Others, like Futsalroos head coach Steve Knight, believed that while a national league is a great idea, participating teams needed to be at a level that would improve the quality of the competition, and eventually be competitive enough that the winners could negotiate the AFC Club Championship qualifiers and make the finals regardless of their financial status.
This meant an overhaul of the current club competition structure to ensure the strongest men’s and women’s teams competed for a place in the national league.
The current Sydney premier and super leagues, Knight said, rated clubs on their performances over all age groups, from under-12s to seniors.
“But this doesn’t necessarily mean the eight best senior men’s and women’s teams are testing each other week in and week out. It could even leave Sydney’s best senior men’s or women’s team playing in Super League if the whole club was relegated.”
“Worse still, under-12 players have the same pressure on them [as the senior players] to perform and earn points for the club to determine whether the club is relegated or not. This adds pressure to the value of the result when it’s player development the club should actually be trying to achieve.”
Knight said it made more sense to separate the age groups into their own competitions separate to the promotion and relegation battle and conduct mid week competition at a central multiple-court venue, for example, under-12s on a Monday night, under-14s on Tuesday, etc.
The other disadvantage at present, Knight said, is the court size the younger age groups have to play on. The smaller the court the quicker the decision-making becomes, so playing on international size courts defeated the benefit of how Futsal helps in player development.
“You would then hold youth men and women and senior men and women on the weekend for promotion and relegation,” he said.
“This way the best club teams are competing against each other on a weekly basis and ensures the development work the club was undertaking paid off, as you can now see with the results Dural has been able to achieve when really they have fielded their youth squad to win this year’s F-League.”
The Aussie coach and former national rep also alluded to this structure being the perfect foundation for F-League entry, with the top sides from each state’s premier league (the number based on a weighting system) invited to take part and relegated if not strong enough.
“This year’s bottom teams won’t be relegated under the current structure as there is no next structure in place,” Knight said.
“The big question of how we improve Futsal at an elite level is by making sure the best players, coaches and referees are all competing in the same league,” he said.
“We also need better attendances at coaching programs [only three from NSW joined 12 others at the most recent AFC level 1 five-day course] and then we should be running Futsal programs in schools, driven by clubs involved in Futsal NSW elite competitions.”
“We need more coaches to pursue more up-to-date knowledge and continue their coaching education to train and develop the next level of Futsal player.
“Presently you can attend a 7.5 hour course, be selected for a state position and manage a talented group to win a national championship and call yourself a coach. In Spain, you need to go through three levels of courses involving 400-plus hours at the third level to call yourself a coach.”
Following his experiences in the national league of the glorious 1980s Knight also believed it would be better to establish a proper F-League committee to run the sport, “a management team that actively took care of finance, found corporate backing and drove marketing, just like Mike Wrublewski did in the 1980s with the basketball [NBL] – and then making sure that each club has an equal amount of finance to get them all on the same playing field”.
“The game is huge in Asia, and we could have a bigger part of it. The FFA needs to show more direction to the sport and get the national competition model in line with AFC requirements; however, we also need to show that we deserve that direction.”
More than anything else, according to Parramatta coach Steven Luburic, Australian Futsal urgently needed an elite event like the F-League to prepare players for international-standard competition.
“Players know the Premier League and Super League is geared toward the development of kids, and the highest level of Futsal should be even more professional than that. Players think the premier league is tough, but we do seven weekly training sessions [for the F-League],” he said.
“We’re a Futsal club; that’s where we want to be, and we’ve got a good bunch of players who have put the Blues first. We’re not competing with outdoor soccer; indoor can be played all-year round. We just need more technical development at the highest level to make the overall playing standard better.”
The next move, said Briggs, was to start up a Women’s F-League next year and complete the elite pathway for female players.
“There’s no women’s world cup just yet, but many countries are pushing for it, and there’s even a push to get Futsal included in the Olympic Games.”
“We must make sure we’re ready for when this happens because it’s a huge benefit to get in early. The Matildas started when women’s football was taking off and they’re established now because of it; and Australia was a relative world force when Futsal was first taking off and performed well while they had the funding, so we have to take steps now to make sure we’re positioned better in the future.”
Briggs thanked European sports brand Hummel for their support and encouraged others to get behind the exciting sport.
“Our structure is different to outdoor; Futsal is less regimented, a more a family based environment. Every age group plays at the same venue on the same day, so people stay and watch each other play. It’s hard to explain to people outside the game, but it really is like a community,” he said.
“Football and Futsal is battling against a lot of sports for exposure in Australia, and anyone who grows up with a good experience playing Futsal is more likely to get their kids involved.”
Australian Futsal is established, growing and hungry for more, so get involved, get your friends and family involved, and get behind the sport any way you can – as a player, coach, official, administrator, volunteer or supporter.
Who knows what’s possible for Australia in the future!