A loss of funding, a national team and the ability to play indoors for over for a year, and yet the future of Futsal in the UK is brighter than ever. Alicia Povey explains why Futsal is not just surviving, but thriving.
The pandemic has been exceptionally tough for every sport, there’s no question about that. Fixtures cancelled, teams scattered in lockdown, stadiums standing empty week in, week out and players waiting with baited breath to find out when they could return.
Futsal was no exception to this rule. But, on top of the challenges that we all faced during lockdown, the sport had to wait even longer to return to “normality”, with indoor sports being one of the final considerations in the roadmap. On top of that, widespread cuts by governing bodies saw the dissolution of the England national team set-up and, more generally, any financial security pulled from underneath it. It’s hard enough to rebuild an entire sport after more than a year without the ability to play, but when you add financial insecurity and the annihilation of a clear elite development structure to a sport that’s in its infancy, it appears doomed to fail.
But Futsal has a way of staying alive, even in the most difficult of conditions. Perhaps its longevity stems from its birth in the tough favelas of Latin America, or perhaps the dream of Futsal being a widely accepted sport in England is kept alive by the volunteers, coaches and players who campaigned to #SaveFutsal at the first sight of austerity (check out the hashtag and see how much it took off). Whatever the reasons may have been, Futsal didn’t just roll over and die a slow and painful death in England; in fact, it could be in the best place it’s ever been.
So, enough of the doom and gloom. What’s the future of this beautiful sport in England and where has the journey taken it recently?
Futsal Premier League
The Futsal Premier League (FPL) came to life as the return of outdoor sport was announced. The brainchild of Jon Kurrant and Juan Tapia Owens, the FPL gave teams from all routes of Futsal the opportunity to play at arguably the best outdoor Futsal court in England – the Westway, London. The competitive element of the competition was obviously a fantastic showcase for the sport, but as Juan Tapia Owens made clear, there were plenty of other elements that made it special:
“After being away from competitive Futsal for so long, recreating these team bonds, the enjoyment of the sport and just moving around was crucial to all involved. Seeing different players and teams talk, laugh and smile on the side whilst watching other games created the laid-back, informal feel we had aspired for.”
The FPL hit the perfect balance between welcoming players and fans back into the world of Futsal after a long break, creating a fun environment for players young and old to get competitive game time and also sharing fantastic social media content which engaged the wider community.
Not only that, but it has shown that there are multiple avenues that can be explored in how clubs, fans and players try to grow Futsal in the future. The model that the FPL adopted could act as a mould for other clubs and organisations to follow, with outdoor Futsal as a viable option (despite the English weather!).
Juan Tapia Owens explains: “I think it has given Futsal a different potential direction and area it can really thrive in. We have always thought about it being played indoors and formally within the UK but seeing the FPL work and people coming to either enquire or watch the game proved to us the necessity to showcase our sport in different ways. Recreationally, we aren’t at the level of the small grass five-a-side form of the game, but courts like Westway can definitely help drive that.”
FA National Futsal Series Summer Showdown
The FA National Futsal Series (NFS) sits at the top of the Futsal pyramid in England and, prior to Covid-19, had been gearing up for their biggest season yet. A stringent recruitment process for new teams was undertaken by league management during the lockdown and both the men’s and women’s divisions were bolstered ready for the new season which it was hoped would start in October 2020.
The October start date came and went, and it became evident that no indoor Futsal would be able to happen for the foreseeable future. The new lockdown over Christmas and into the new year saw all sports again put on hold, before the government roadmap made it clear that the return to indoor Futsal was a long way off – May 17, to be precise.
Everyone behind the scenes at the FA National Futsal Series worked diligently over the enforced break to bring a new-look competition to England. The “Summer Showdown” tournament was launched as relative freedom flooded throughout the country. Top class venues, coverage on YouTube and FreeSports TV, professional commentary, England’s strongest teams … Oh, and some fantastic Futsal.
The tournament was something that everyone in the Futsal world could get behind. Months after the #SaveFutsal movement first emerged, fighting for the very survival of the sport, social media was buzzing with the very best of Futsal on show. Thousands tuned in each week to watch both the men’s and women’s matches, new fans were sharing goals and skills that impressed them and existing Futsal players finally put faces to names, with the network and support system becoming stronger than ever. It wasn’t just new fans that the Summer Showdown attracted, though. The finals of the competition were also picked up by BT Sport and televised live – a first for Futsal in England.
You could say that the Summer Showdown was a dress rehearsal for the restart of the league for the 2021/22 season, and my oh my, what a high bar they’ve set with it! If we talk about the future of Futsal in England, it’s now impossible to do so without the FA National Futsal Series. There have been so many steps forward in such a short period of time and this league will only go from strength to strength and gain the prestige that it deserves.
State of play and future
So, as with every sport, there are positives and negatives in the world of Futsal at the moment. Firstly, it’s interesting to note that despite the top level of Futsal becoming more and more professional with social media coverage, TV deals and top-class players, the game itself is still classed as “grassroots” by the FA. You only have to watch the highlights from the National Futsal Series Summer Super Series to see that professionalism in action, and, in all honesty, the fact that the top level of any sport – especially one as fast-growing as Futsal – is classed as “grassroots” is nonsensical.
Similarly, the lack of an England team takes away from the importance and growth of the sport. There are plenty of players who would have the capability and desire to represent the nation on the world stage, and, seeing the skill on show in the NFS, they would be real contenders, too. Young players need something to aspire to, and the lack of international representation will hold the sport back for current and future generations. Perhaps the adoption of a similar model to the England Beach Football set-up, where they operate independently from the FA but represent the nation, could be the answer to this particular problem in the future.
But despite these challenges, there are certainly plenty of positives that will see the sport grow and prosper. Perhaps the most obvious is that there is huge demand for Futsal. More and more young players are joining Futsal clubs and with this increased popularity we’re also seeing new clubs pop up around England. Where there used to be a handful of Futsal clubs to choose from, we’re seeing more choice and therefore more competition. As they say, the more the merrier!
Increased visibility on television, YouTube and on social media has and will be vital for the growth of English Futsal. There’s an army of volunteers out there photographing, reporting on, commentating on and raising the profile of the game, and without those people, the game wouldn’t survive in this increasingly digital market. It’s clearly a positive that the sport has talented people marketing it, and with their help, we’ll see the sport grow on and off the pitch.
That last point touches on perhaps the most important thing to remember about Futsal when discussing its future: the people involved. There’s a certifiable army of players, supporters, organisers, creatives and coaches who live and breathe this sport and if I had written this article imagining that these people didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have been able to write a single word. Even with financial cuts, challenges with Covid-19 and battling the English weather, everyone who is involved in this sport wants it to succeed, which is what makes it an almost sure thing that it will do.
So, in terms of state of play, here’s where we’re at: Futsal is growing, the future is bright and the people associated with this sport will not let it fail. There’ll be challenges along the way, of course, but I’d always back Futsal to come out stronger on the other side.