With a smaller, heavier ball, the game is played on the ground, which means less worry about head injuries
Gone are the days when primary-school children were condemned to wincing, eyes shut tightly in fear, as a heavy leather football smashed against their heads. But despite advances in technology making the balls lighter there is clearly more to be done to safeguard children. In Futsal, a Fifa-sanctioned version of five-a-side football, players use their heads more, even though the ball rarely touches it. Futsal is the thinking player’s game.
Formed from the contraction of futebol de salão (Portguese) and fútbol sala (Spanish) meaning hall football, it is an indoor sport, played five against five on a court somewhere between a basketball court (28m x 15m) and a handball court (40m x 20m).
The goals are hockey-size (3m x 2m), kick-ins are used instead of throw-ins and the ball is smaller (size 4 for adults, size 3 for under 12s), and slightly weighted with a foam filling so that it tends to stay on the ground.
The game is widely celebrated as a feast of technical excellence and ball mastery. In Brazil, the game was described by Emilio Miranda, professor of soccer at São Paulo University, as the country’s “laboratory of improvisation”.
Futsal is credited with fuelling the skills and perception of generations of Brazilian football stars, from Pelé to Neymar. The two best footballers in the world – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – also advocate it as the game they fell in love with growing up in Argentina and Portugal respectively.
Over the past 10 years, futsal has grown at the grassroots in Britain on the back of the domestic football associations’ desire to develop the skillset of young players and give youngsters game time in winter. It’s now part of the English FA’s National Game Strategy, and Scotland’s FA is busily promoting it too.
Peter Sturgess, the English FA’s head of coaching for the five-11 age group and former head coach of the men’s national futsal team, says it offers a perfect environment for a child without the “biological or physiological capacity to deal with extremes of heat and cold”.
It’s not just waving a finger in the air to test the wind direction either. A seminal study in 2007 by sports science researchers at Liverpool John Moores University found a big reduction in heading in a futsal game when compared with five-a-side football played with a regular, bouncier ball. The chief culprit in the game, long goalkeeper kicks and long aerial passes of 10 metres or longer, were slashed by two-thirds due to the nature of the futsal ball. Instead, players engaged in more dribbles, passing, movement, feints and shots at goal. The game is more high-speed technical chess than pinball.
At the elite game, the comparison between 11-a-side and futsal is stark too. In the last football men’s World Cup in Russia, 12 of the 169 goals (7%) were scored with the head. In contrast, just five out of the 328 goals (1.5%) in 52 games at the Fifa Futsal World Cup in Colombia in 2016 were scored by the head or chest. The chest goal is not unusual. In fact, in futsal you’re more likely to see a goal scored from a protruding backside edging home a far-post pass than you are a bullet header.
As a grassroots coach and FA grassroots coach mentor, in football and futsal, I can testify to the sheer joy many children feel when gratuitous heading is replaced my many more meaningful touches of the ball with the feet. Futsal is a fast-track to footballing fun, enjoyment and neural development in a sporting context.
Jamie Fahey is a Uefa B licensed coach who is writing a book on the history of futsal