‘Exciting’, ‘fast-paced’ and ‘crowd-pleasing’ were all phrases used to describe futsal during its rise in popularity in this country. Being actively involved in the sport myself, I can tell you that this description lives on, however English futsal is facing a number of challenges in order to sustain its growth and professionalise the game. There are many decisions to be made around the future of the sport, one of the most important being where it sits alongside its richer and more popular brother; football.
I believe that futsal has huge potential, not only to branch out of the spattering of suitable sports halls across the country but also to improve the 11-a-side game whilst establishing its own identity in football-mad England. Here’s why…
Futsal was born out of the outdoor courts of 1930’s Brazil, and now it’s an internationally acclaimed sport in its own right. Governed by FIFA, it is the original version of small-sided football, with five players per team, a smaller ball and goals, as well as a hard playing surface. The game places greater emphasis on close-control and technical ability, resulting in an incredibly skilled and entertaining alternative to the world’s most beloved sport.
The sport arrived on our shores in the late 80’s and it has become increasingly popular ever since. We’ve had a national futsal team for the majority of the past few decades, and the current crop recently missed out on qualifying for this year’s World Cup in Colombia. Additionally, there is the newly re-named FA Super League, which encapsulates the country’s leading amateur clubs and is about to go into its ninth successive season this year.
There are an estimated 25,000 people playing futsal across the country and this number has seen a sharp rise in recent years. This growth has been in-part a result of the steady expansion of the Super League and the increased exposure of futsal at youth level through school sport and professional football club’s community programmes. English futsal’s future would appear to be promising, however despite a seemingly solid foundation, the sport has seemed to hit an impasse which is stifling its growth.
It takes just a little research in to how the adoption of futsal by other countries has been beneficial to the development their 11-a-side game. However, futsal’s strongest selling point (equipping youngsters with greater technical skills) may also be its biggest challenge.
Take Brazil, Italy and Spain for example – these three are amongst the most successful footballing nations in the world, and each has futsal at the core of its grassroots programmes. Children purely play futsal up to the age of 12 or 13 – they are not exposed to 11-a-side in order to perfect their movement, control, passing and decision making. These players more often than not graduate to the traditional football format, transferring their skills and leaving futsal behind.
For footballing success, this system works. All three nations seem to have an endless conveyor belt of world-class footballers, developed as a result of their futsal-heavy grassroots programmes. However, the shared opinion of these countries is that the format of futsal is best used as a means to develop young footballers. The result is that the existence of professional or senior futsal is subject to preference, and reserved for players who prefer the small-sided game rather than the traditional 11-a-side format. In the case of England, a nation where the 11-a-side game takes precedence over all others, establishing and sustaining the growth of futsal is a huge ask.
The FA (futsal’s parent organisation) has tried to emulate the continental futsal model but our historical attitudes towards the sport seem too hard to shift. We have a reputation for breeding ‘box-to-box midfielders’ and ‘commanding centre halves’, archetypes born out of a focus on strength and speed, as well as the urgency to progress to 11-a-side football at the earliest possible convenience. The debate still rages on as to whether futsal can be successful in diversifying England’s playing style and improve the technical ability of our footballers, but is rarely escalated to a meaningful level.
The failure of our nation at major football tournaments has time and again forced The FA’s hand in to looking in to ways to reverse our fortune’s - the potential of futsal programmes at grassroots levels being one. However, the varying success of previous futsal initiatives has cast further doubt over where the sport sits within the organisation’s master plan. This indecision has seen futsal stall and even the management team has parted ways with the sport due to a lack of progress. With much trepidation over futsal’s stance, there have been calls for the sport to break away from The FA’s reign and create a governing body of its own. Although with few pragmatic contributions for how a separate organisation might operate without the backing of the Three Lions brand, this again just remains as idle talk.
On the surface, futsal in this country seems to have two paths. It can remain a part of The FA in the hope of a establishing a serious national grassroots programme, although with the risk of becoming pigeon-holed as a ‘junior’ sport and/or development initiative for the 11-a-side game. Alternatively it can go down the route of independence with a strategic plan that establishes a professional pathway, although having to do so without the support and sponsorship provided by The FA. There may be a third option however.
Futsal could gain a level of independence but also retain its ties with The FA. This type of relationship has already proven to work well in the case of the Women’s Super League (WSL). The WSL, although working alongside The FA, has established its own brand and directive including the commercial partnerships and broadcasting deals with the likes of Continental, SSE and BT Sport.
Emulating a similar relationship would undoubtedly come with compromises, after all The FA are still keen to utilise futsal as a means to grow our nation’s favourite sport. However, this doesn’t’ necessarily have to be a bad thing. By The FA promoting futsal via the mould of the continental model, participation in the sport has the potential to increase ten-fold. While a lot of grassroots futsal players will undoubtedly make the move to the 11-a-side game, there will be a healthy percentage that prefer, and are better suited to the small-sided format. The result in a greater pool of players and the potential to further strengthen the sport at senior level. It’s a potential relationship that could tick all of the boxes.
Futsal deserves recognition as a sport of its own right, and I’m confident that it will stabilise in the coming years in order to realise its true potential. For this to happen, those actively involved in futsal must stake a greater claim for the sport and establishing a governing body (along with a development strategy) of its own is the logical next step. However, this is not to say that doing this independent from The FA would be wise. A sport thrives on grassroots participation and the development of talent, and The FA can provide a round-about way of achieving this sooner, at the same time fulfilling its own quota of discovering England’s next Euro and World Cup winning stars. Increased participation in futsal will result in a greater pool of talent, and with talent comes a higher standard of futsal. Once brands, sponsors, broadcasters and audiences are exposed to the excitement that was felt during the ascendency of the sport in England the rest will follow.
Despite its challenges, futsal continues to be the fastest growing indoor sport in England. In order to sustain this growth, futsal’s governance needs to be addressed now, and plans put in place for the immediate future of the sport.
The sport already has a solid foundation and the potential to become one of our country’s sporting success stories. It’s time to capitalise on the excitement of the small-sided game and allow it to flourish.