Can the newly-announced Premier Futsal league endear Indians to a sport that has been around for more than 70 years?
FANS HAVE stood in the stands, witnessed and cheered the success story of cricket’s shorter format. Twenty-20 cricket is a certified hit, what with the Indian Premier League (IPL) in its ninth season, and showing no signs of slowing down. Similarly, the country’s sports lovers have welcomed the hockey, football, kabaddi, tennis, badminton and wrestling leagues with open arms. Now, there’s a new kid on the block, or shall we say, the field.
Futsal, a five-a-side, shorter, faster, indoor and more exciting variant of football, is all set to enter India via the Premier Futsal League. Dubbed the world’s first-ever multinational futsal league, Premier Futsal will bring together 56 of the current futsal players from across the world in a competitive format. The franchise-based league will be played across eight cities—Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Kochi, Goa and Hyderabad—in India from July 15-24 this year.
And, before you think that here comes another IPL spin-off, it will be news to you that futsal’s origins date back to more than 70 years, when it was played in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1930 as a version of indoor football. The word ‘futsal’ comes from Spanish fútbol sala or fútbol de salón, which translates to “hall football”.
But as a sport that has been in existence for more than 70 years, futsal has no base in a country like India despite an abundant list of sports leagues. “I don’t really think futsal has even caught on worldwide. Football in its pure form is so popular and simple – even in terms of time it is so perfect – that it does not need any tampering. It’s not like you need a T20 to make cricket acceptable internationally,” says Indian football expert Novy Kapadia. “In Asia, except Iran and one or two other countries, no one really takes futsal seriously. It is, of course, very popular in Brazil because it helps you improve your dribbling skills a lot,” adds Kapadia. Sadly, there are no traces of it in India. No sign of a national futsal team either.
But all that is set to change now with the Premier Futsal League. Backed by the Paraguay-based Asociación Mundial de Futsal (AMF), which governs the sport globally along with Fifa, and its Indian affiliate, the Futsal Association of India (FAI), the league plans to start a talent-hunt programme across eight Indian cities to select futsal players. The programme will go through 2,500 participants in every city and shortlist five regional players for each squad. It also appears to have the backing of some influential players, from both cricket and football. The league has roped in cricketer Virat Kohli as brand ambassador, but the biggest coup has to be the announcement of former football player Luis Figo as the president of the league. The Portuguese winger is considered one of the most iconic players of his generation, having played for the likes of Spanish clubs FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Italian club Inter Milan in a career full of international, club and personal accolades. In another sign of support, Welsh footballer Gareth Bale, who plays for Real Madrid, recently tweeted to congratulate both Kohli and Figo for backing Premier Futsal in India.
“If you look at futsal as a sport, it’s got a lot of flair. Futsal players have a level of boldness when it comes to taking control of the time and space constraints. There’s a subtle arrogance about how they play the game. And we thought Virat was the perfect fit for that. I think most of India will agree that now he is bigger than just a cricket player,” says Abhinandan Balasubramanian, CEO and director, Premier Futsal.
Balasubramanian says the league will also look at footballers to endorse Premier Futsal. But he believes that for India, a new league needed someone the entire country could recognise and identify with. Kohli fitted the bill perfectly.
This is also a perfect time for the sport to get a fillip in the country. There was a time when Bhaichung Bhutia, arguably India’s finest player, single-handedly stamped India’s name on the global footballing map with his performances. Eventually, Bhutia exited the scene and ever since, world football has expanded at the speed of light, while football in India continues to grow at a dismal pace. The Indian Super League (ISL) was perceived as a watershed moment for Indian football. There are no doubts over its success, but the facts tell a different story. In two seasons of the ISL, the player with most appearances is a Canadian (Iain Hume) and the top goal-scorer is a Colombian (Stiven Mendoza). “Some ISL teams have cricketers as owners. In India, only cricket sells… Within India, people hardly know about futsal,” rues Kapadia.
Another important department needed to fix football’s—and eventually futsal’s—popularity and success is infrastructure. In February this year, a Fifa delegation completed a full inspection of six provisionally selected stadiums in India for the Fifa U-17 World Cup in 2017. In its address after the inspection, the delegation expressed its satisfaction with the progress of the stadiums, but noted that there were a lot of amendments needed to ensure the stadiums were up to Fifa standards. Except for the DY Patil stadium in Mumbai, which, ironically, has hosted packed IPL matches in the past, other stadiums needed more work. “The Nehru stadium in Delhi is getting used, Salt Lake (in Kolkata) is being refurbished thanks to the 2017 U-17 World Cup. The Nehru stadium in Margao (Goa) is excellent. With more and more high-key tournaments, the infrastructure has to improve and come up to international standards. Spectator amenities also have to be improve, because we always tend to ignore the spectators,” Kapadia adds.
Namdev Shirgaonker, vice-president, AMF, and co-founder & president, FAI, believes the futsal scenario, especially in India, would greatly benefit from a structured professional league, wherein young Indian players would get the chance to kick around with global futsal players. “It is a sport I am sure Indians will love. Futsal is an indoor sport that involves a lot of mind and agility. It is like playing chess on the field; you need to have really accurate passing. And I think Indians are really good at sports and games that require a lot of mental strength. This is a sport where we can make a mark,” says Shirgaonker.
July 15-24 Kick-off
4 continents and 21 countries participating
8 teams across 8 cities
5 players in each team, which will include 3 international futsallers, 1 international football marquee player
and 1 Indian futsaller
* Five players on court—rolling substitutions
* Use of square goals (3m by 2m) Use of size 4 futsal ball (30% reduced bounce)
* Played in indoor venues on specially made teraflex courts
* Game of two halves, 20 minutes each