Futsal: it looks like football but feels like basketball. It’s relentless and rapid. A game of precision, guile, artistry and explosive energy that offers no hiding place on court.
The sport is futsal. The breathless FIFA-sanctioned five-a-side indoor game born in South America in the 1930s and hailed by football stars from Brazilians Pelé and Romario to modern greats such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the game that formed their creative game nous.
While many people may be aware of the game (it’s played by an estimated 60 million people and is a bona fide professional sport in many countries), its image of street-style tricksters can be misleading.
Yes, players get at least six times more touches on the ball than in football, fuelling the purposeful practice required to supercharge skill.
But it’s also brutal.
What is Futsal?
“In futsal, if you rest for three seconds, you die,” said Marc Carmona, the Catalan coach who earned a reputation as the ‘Pep Guardiola of futsal’ while leading Barcelona’s professional men’s team to unprecedented glory on court when the now Manchester City manager was propelling Messi and the tiki-taka brigade to the summit of European football.
“In football, a player can rest for two minutes,” Carmona explained. “It is fine. Nothing happens.
“In futsal, it’s impossible. One player has the ball, but the others are moving continuously.”
He told me all about the game’s impact in Spain when I interviewed him for Futsal: The Story of an Indoor Football Revolution, which examines the game’s history, culture and links to footballing artistry through my prism of incessant street games and British five a side played as a kid in Liverpool in the 1970s and 80s.
Futsal is five v five, so every player is involved. Always. With and without the ball. Including the goalkeepers. It’s fiercely tactical at elite level but for amateur players – including 50-year-olds like me – this immersive feeling triggers flashbacks to the lost art of street football.
Even the name screams urgency.
‘Futsal’ is a snappy contraction of futebol de salão and fútbol sala, Portuguese and Spanish for indoor/hall football.
But why is it so demanding?
Played on a court anywhere between the size of a basketball (28m x 15m) and handball (40m x 20m) court, it’s defined by a potent cocktail of constraints.
How long does a futsal game last?
The clock stops when the ball goes out – like in basketball. So a 40-minute match (20 mins each way) lasts about 90 minutes in total. The ball is crucial. It’s slightly smaller (size 4 at adult level, size 3 or 2 for kids) but as heavy as a bigger football because it’s filled with foam. It doesn’t bounce much and stays on the deck. And the slick, indoor surface means the ball gets fizzed around like a puck in an ice hockey match.
Side and end lines, rather than walls as in old-skool British five-a-side, force players to use skill rather than hit and hope. The goals are(hockey size (3m x 2m) and there’s no offside law. Freedom reigns. It’s a technicians’ dream.
The pressure to think and act fast is huge. A four-second rule – a limit on goalkeepers in possession and players taking kick-ins (not throw-ins) and set-pieces – rewards nimble-minded players. Uefa-funded studies have shown how playing the game fast-tracks a player’s perception-action coupling loop – the holy grail of pyschological and physical combination play.
“Futsal is basically a HIIT workout with a ball”
Rolling substitutions are essential on a court with the equivalent density of 37-a-side on a football pitch. It’s much more anaerobic than football. A 45-second bout of short sprints, rapid acceleration and screeching deceleration in a series of counter-attacks can be fixed only by time resting on the bench. At elite level, the coach makes 60-100 substitutions a game. No player in a squad of 14 will be on court for more than 20 minutes. Some will get less than a minute at a time.
“It’s basically a HIIT workout with a ball,” explained Lawrence Lok, a regional coach development officer at the FA who plays in my amateur futsal team in Reading. “But it’s much more fun. You’ve got the social side of a team game and the mental demands of constant focus too.”
The professional world of futsal
Mike Skubala, the former England men’s futsal coach, described the game to the Coaches Voice site as a “pressure cooker”, with players requiring urgent rescue from the action before they fall off “the cliff” in mental and physical capability. If a player rests on court for a moment (or “three seconds” as Carmona puts it), the tactical masterplan fails.
Futsal has its own superstars. The legendary Falcão – the ‘Pelé of futsal’ with more than 400 goals for Brazil – was hailed by PSG’s Neymar as a huge influence in a country where the game is known as “the laboratory of improvisation” and more people play it than football.
Ricardinho – the magician labelled a hybrid version of Messi and Ronaldo in futsal – retired recently after leading Portugal to World Cup and European championship glory and bequeathing a legacy of high-energy exploits on court.
In England, the FA axed the national teams in 2020 amid a frenzy of Covid cost-cutting. But it’s gaining more traction at youth level and the National Futsal Series men’s and women’s league games are screened live on BT Sport.
Max Kilman, the Premier League defender who ‘twin-tracked’ in both sports before signing for Wolverhampton Wanderers, sees this. “At the top of futsal,” he told me, “you don’t have time to make dribbles. You get the ball, you turn, you shoot, you react, you defend. Unless you’re Ricardinho, that is!”
“You get the ball, you turn, you shoot, you react, you defend”
Over the years, I’ve heard futsal described variously as “the jungle”, “high speed chess” and “the thinking player’s game”. All are valid.
Another way to see it is that it’s like football – but with more bang for your buck and the most annoying bits of 11-a-side stripped out: the time wasting, the 0-0 bore-draws, the long wait out on the wing for a touch of the ball and, at grassroots level in Britain, the endless disruption of waterlogged pitches. It doesn’t rain indoors.
The final fitness bonus in futsal is protection from dangerous play. A five-foul law means a team is punished by a 10-metre penalty to the opposition for every subsequent foul after the fifth in a half. It keeps the game flowing and halts gratuitous hacking.
In more ways than one, the ball is always rolling in the high-intensity interval sport where every second counts.
Futsal: the numbers game
60 million Number of people playing futsal worldwide, according to FIFA.
80 Average number of rolling substitutions in an elite adult match.
40 Duration of a game (20-minute halves). Although in Russia’s professional Super League, games are 25 minutes each way to compensate for the long away trips in a nation spanning eleven time zones across nearly 6,000 miles.
37 Equivalent population density in football (37 v 37) of 5v5 futsal a 40m x 20m court.
14 Number of players in an adult futsal squad.
9 Number of Fifa futsal World Cups since the first in 1989. Brazil has won 5, Spain 2, Argentina and Portugal 1 each. England has never qualified.
6 Average number of goals in elite international futsal.
5 Number of players in each team (one goalkeeper and four on court).
4 Number of seconds limiting goalkeepers in possession (in their own half) and any player taking a set-piece once the ball is placed on the court.
0.5 Number of seconds quicker futsal players are at executing passes than in football, according to a Uefa-funded study. Futsal players showed “higher technical intensity”, with 23% more passes a minute and greater accuracy too.
Jamie Fahey is a Guardian journalist and author of Futsal: The Story of an Indoor Football Revolution. His website is futsalstreetspot.com