What the hell is futsal ?
Let’s face it, soccer is not a sport that is native to the American psyche. It is low scoring. It has 11v11, but somehow nobody can manage to get the ball in the net. Also, soccer matches can end with a tie. That is how we know that soccer was not invented by an American. A tie ? Why even bother playing a low scoring game that can end with a tie ? To most Americans, soccer looks like a kickball game without any bases to run. In fact, unfortunately, most youth soccer matches look just like kickball games.
So what does all this have to do with futsal ? Well, what if instead of 11v11 on a soccer field you shrank the field to the size of a basketball court, and you made it 5v5, and the game was a fast high scoring game ? Basketball is an exciting game right ? Fast, high scoring, loads of skill… Well, imagine if soccer was more like basketball. That is the essence of futsal. Futsal is like a small fast soccer game played 5v5 (or in some cases 4v4) on a basketball court with a special ball that does not bounce.
Futsal is a GREAT activity for aspiring young soccer players. Futsal players are forced to control the ball and keep their first touches on the ball close to them (because the space is smaller). Futsal players are forced to move off the ball (i.e., move when they do not have the ball) and make quick decisions in tight spaces. They are also rewarded for having good technical skill (i.e., ball control) and for having good pace (i.e., fast speed of play). All these skills are transportable onto the soccer field. In fact, here is the big secret, most of the best youth soccer players are accomplished and active futsal players. That is why soccer clubs across the country are (finally) adding futsal to their development curriculums.
Confession. When I first saw futsal in person – I hated it. I thought: what the hell is this ? Some silly game invented to generate revenues for sports centers and coaches during the off-season ? In fact, for the first year – I held that opinion. However, I have several children that play soccer at the highest national levels. And today I attribute much of their success to the competitive futsal they played when they were U8-U14. Not all futsal players are able to translate success on the futsal court onto the soccer field. Speed, strength, and a different brand of mental toughness are also required. And not all excellent soccer players have their roots in futsal. Such players might have good DNA, or spend extra time practicing their touches with a soccer ball. But, in my limited experience (five children involved in youth soccer for the past 12 years), many of the best youth soccer players invested significant time training and playing futsal… and many of the best futsal players are also the best soccer players on their teams. This is no coincidence.
I am very active in the Cincinnati futsal community. When I catch a youth soccer game, or high school soccer game, I recognize many of the best players on the soccer field from the futsal courts. Futsal is a secret the soccer world understands well. In some countries, they only play futsal until U12-U13. The theory is that children can learn the fundamentals of passing and movement and control better in a small situation like 5v5 on a small court – instead of getting lost in a much larger 11v11 setting on a large field. I estimate that in 1-2 hours of futsal free-play with a small group, a player can get 500 – 1200 touches on a ball under pressure !
Ready for the best part ? Most kids that like soccer love futsal. Soccer practices can be tedious. Soccer games can be frustrating and stressful. Technical development during these tedious and/or frustrating times can be difficult. However, get a few kids playing futsal – and you will be amazed at how quickly they improve. Amazed at how quickly their first touches go from sloppy to tight. Amazed at how quickly they realize that if they want the ball, they need to move when they do not have the ball. Amazed at how quickly they become willing to take on a 1v1 situation. Amazed at how quickly they look to make that quick pass rather than try to dribble through the field with their heads down. In short, the game of futsal is the best technical coach money can buy. Young players can learn many of the fundamentals of soccer on a futsal court. This learning becomes more efficient because they are having fun playing a fast high scoring game rather than standing around at practice or standing on a field during a game waiting for the ball to get into their area. I know many top level youth soccer players that, if given a real choice, would trade in their soccer balls for futsal balls and play futsal rather than soccer.
But wait ! There’s more ! Parents and coaches love futsal. Parents love futsal because they quickly realize that the game of futsal is the best trainer money can buy. They also realize that you only need 5 players to field a team – so forming and managing a team is much easier. And the game is usually played indoors, so weather be damned and it can be played year-round. Also, futsal is a low contact game – so injuries are less likely. Coaches love futsal because they can see significant improvement in their players during soccer season. I promise, most soccer coaches know which of their soccer players played futsal during the winter and which ones did not.
However, futsal is not the holy grail of cost effective youth soccer development.
First, when futsal is played right – it is the most beautiful game. However, when futsal is played like a soccer game, or played poorly, it is the ugliest game. In fact, I see more ugly games of futsal than beautiful games. That is because most people just show up to some futsal league game or futsal tournament game with 5 players from their outdoor soccer team to play two hectic 20 minute halves in some local futsal league. So you end up with a rushed thoughtless experience where everybody is just looking at the clock and scoreboard screaming “go go go”. You also bring all the psychological baggage from your outdoor soccer team with you: the same coaches, the same parents, the same players, often the same jerseys. So the kids just end up playing futsal just like they play soccer – and nothing really changes. There is a time and a place for competitive futsal (leagues or tournaments). But to simply take 5 or so of your outdoor soccer players and bring them to a futsal league or tournament is a mistake. These leagues and tournaments do not maximize the efficacy of futsal as a development activity. I personally think futsal is best when there is no scoreboard, or clock, and the kids just play – mixing and matching teams as they go based on the play. No pressure. No stress. Kids can take risks without consequences. I personally think futsal works best when ages and genders are mixed together – and music is played loudly. This age/gender diversification forces the players to understand the game of futsal as a relationship between the player and the game – rather than to a team or a coach or group of friends. The lack of a clock and scoreboard and the music signal to the kids that there is no judgement here – only fun, fast, play. (Some adult supervision is generally required to make sure play is safe and fair – especially if new players are often introduced to the mix.)
Second, competitive futsal (leagues and tournaments) can be very intense. We have all seen youth soccer games where the spectators (parents) have succumbed to the intensity of the match. Well, because futsal is a fast high-scoring game, this intensity is even greater – and the spectator emotions can run even higher. Futsal is a high scoring game, so if one team is even a little better than another team – you can get into some serious goal score differentials that new parents and players to the sport cannot handle. That is just part of the game. If you want a high scoring game, then you cannot complain if one team crushes another by a large differential. Let karma reassure you that the team doing the crushing will, itself, get crushed by another team at some point. (I have been on both sides of an epic futsal beat down, and have seen karma work its magic every time.)