Futsal fever

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Australasian Leisure Management

Born in Uruguay in 1930, futsal (sometimes known as fútbol Sala) is a variant of football played on a basketball court-size pitch, with hockey-size goals and mainly played indoors. Using a smaller ball with less bounce than a regular football, futsal is played between two teams of five, including a goalkeeper, on a hard court surface delimited by lines; walls or boards are not used.

On 1st November, the FIFA Futsal World Cup will kick off in Thailand with Australia (the Qantas Futsalroos) joining 24 nations including the hosts and other regional qualifiers the Solomon Islands, Kuwait and Iran.

The Futsalroos qualification, through the 2012 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Futsal Championship, held in Dubai in May, marks a return to an event that Australia missed out in 2008, having previously qualified for the five previous editions of an event first held in the Netherlands in 1989.

Reached on what is acknowledged as a ‘shoestring’ budget, Australia’s achievement is all the more remarkable given the disjointed nature of futsal development and administration in Australia.

In a recent survey of its 209 member associations, world football and futsal governing body FIFA found that out of 209 member associations, 150 are now playing the sport with varying levels of organisation, an 18% increase on 2006.

The survey also revealed some encouraging information on how member associations go about running the sport internally. While nearly 61% of federations have set up a futsal committee and/or department, around 57% also engage in futsal-related educational and promotional activities. In this respect, both schools and universities have potential roles to play in supporting member associations in their efforts to promote futsal and provide a structure for its development.

While no reference was made to Australia, FIFA presented New Zealand as a model of good governance in futsal.

Explaining how New Zealand Football (NZF) has moved forward in recent years, NZF Futsal Development Manager Dave Payne states “in late 2009 when NZF signalled the intent to put futsal under the governance of the national body, futsal was still very much ‘underground’.

“To ensure we didn’t clash, but complimented with football activity we aligned the pathways of both football and futsal. For all junior programs delivered indoor, a futsal ball has been introduced.

“The next step was to engage schools. We are now active in primary and secondary schools and our next goal is getting football clubs involved in our futsal leagues.”

Widely played in southern Europe and South America, futsal’s surface, ball and rules create an emphasis on improvisation, creativity and technique as well as ball control and passing in small spaces and has become synonymous with flair with players such as Pelé, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo paying tribute to the beneficial effects of playing futsal in their youth.

Arriving in Australia in the 1970s, in the 1980s Futsal had its own national league shown on free-to-air television in a million dollar deal with building products giant James Hardie. However, by the end of the decade futsal was caught in a tug-of-war between two international governing bodies, FIFA and the rival FIFuSa, which led to players, sponsors and supporters being pulled separate ways.

According to futsal writer Dan de Nardi “a distinct lack of administrative structure and financial backing after its 1980s boom left Australia failing to stabilise its early successes, both on and off the court.”

Nonetheless, de Nardi adds “futsal has always enjoyed healthy participation”, with the 2007 Exercise, Recreation and Sport Survey (ERASS) survey recording 248,500 participants.

Although widely acknowledged as the fastest growing area of football, numbers are difficult to verify due to the large numbers of independent organisations administering the game.

For the future, FFA Head of Game Development Matthew Bulkeley suggests “it is not unreasonable to predict registration figures for organised and recreational futsal activities … approaching 400,000 in 2015.”

Since 2008, Football Federation Australia (FFA) has progressively introduced the concept of ‘Small-Sided Games’ (SSG) a modified version of football, structured to more suitably address the needs of young players.

As explained in the FFA’s National Football Development Plan “the basis of SSG is that participants, playing on smaller fields and with smaller numbers, will interact with the ball on more occasions and be required to make less complicated tactical decisions.”

Introduced as a football format for children under 12 years throughout Australia, SSG has an age-related structure and size linked to progressively changing abilities and skill levels.

As part of the National Football Development Plan the FFA also promised a “dedicated Futsal Development Plan (to) focus on more effective integration with the outdoor game.”

Apparently completed, the plan has never been released, although the FFA’s Bulkeley explains “one of FFA’s overarching technical priorities is to harness futsal as a general development tool for outdoor football while at the same time growing participation in futsal throughout the country.”

In the absence of clear direction and management from the FFA, futsal competitions organised by private operators and breakaway associations with a different philosophy towards the game have flourished.

As Australian Futsal Association (AFA) Administration Manager Ian West explains “futsal should be recognised as a sport in its own right and not just a fill in activity between football seasons.”

The largest of the independent organisations managing Futsal, the AFA (formerly Vikings Futsal) administers or has affiliated organisations running competitions in NSW, Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia with in excess of 30,000 players registered.

Looking back to 2005, when independent organisations administering Futsal joined with the reform of football under the auspices of the new FFA, AFA Chief Executive Alistair Miller, recalls “we joined FFA in good faith but little has been done for the game since then.”

Miller adds “the problem is that FFA see Futsal as a training game, to be played in summer, where we want the game to played year-round with its own development path. Without its own pathways the game will not progress.”

With its focus solely on Futsal, the Vikings organisation flourished before its evolution into the AFA last year. It now plans to develop Futsal across Australia, for both genders and all ages and skills levels.

Yet these plans to develop the next generation may be affected by many state football federations planning longer (10 and 11 month) programs for elite youth players essentially forcing them to choose between codes and reducing the future elite player pool.

Nonetheless, with SBS set to broadcast Australia’s Futsal World Cup, Futsal may not only be watched by existing fans but may also get some much needed exposure among the viewers and potential future participants.

Nigel Benton is Publisher of Australasian Leisure Management.

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