Futsal, the fast-paced five-a-side indoor version of soccer, has seen a surge in popularity on the NSW North Coast.
The game from South American was almost unknown a little more than three years ago, but that was before Brazilian pro Vini Leite turned up in the region.
More than anyone else, the former Brazilian futsal league professional has elevated the game to the level of a serious sport.
“In Brazil, futsal and soccer are worshipped religiously. Futsal is often all kids play till the age of 13,” Mr Leite said.
“Most soccer clubs only start from 12 and up.”
Likewise, Mr Leite said many famous names in world soccer, including Ronaldo and Ronaldhino, played futsal exclusively before getting on the soccer field, which fine-tuned their natural talent to flamboyant perfection.
As the Far North Coast NSW Futsal head coach, Mr Leite presided over an avalanche of new players this year, with registrations doubling from 550 to 1100.
Since beginning exclusively at the Alstonville Sports and Leisure Centre, games are now being played in Byron Bay, Mullumbimby, Lennox Head and Goonellabah.
Seasoned soccer players are also waking up to the fact that playing futsal hones their skills and keeps them fit in the off-season.
A Friday night premier league of men’s and youth teams are vying for an end-of-season $5000 cash prize.
“Futsal is like a better version of soccer because you’re more involved in the game, the kids get more touches on the ball – it’s more exciting for the parents to watch,” Mr Leite said.
“It’s such an intense sport. You’re always thinking, you’re not just standing in the middle of the field.
“The soccer coaches here don’t want to see that, because they’re afraid of losing players. They see futsal as a threat, and it shouldn’t be.
“It should be working as a partnership.”
Mr Leite still plays professionally here in Australia. His team in Melbourne, the Victorian Vipers, just won the national championships and is now off to the World Cup qualifiers in China, Burma and Vietnam next year.
Beginners wanting a fun social game can play mixed games on Wednesdays at Goonellabah Sports and Aquatic Centre, and Wednesdays at the Byron Regional Sports and Cultural Centre.