The UK’s pre-eminent futsal writer, Jamie Fahey, returns to give his thoughts on the NFS-BT Sport partnership; futsal’s global growth over the last 12 months, and his overview of the 2021/22 NFS Finals, taking place on 21st May.
Futsal is a small-numbers game. It’s 5 a side. With a four-second rule – and a five-foul limit. The formations: 4-0 or 3-1. The goals? A compact 3m x 2m. And of course the breathless 1v1 duel, a constant riot of micro-fights for slivers of space that define a sport consumed by tiny margins.
Off the court, it’s a different matter.
The numbers are huge. And growing fast.
When the National Futsal Series Grand Finals kick off on Saturday, season one in a three-year deal with BT Sport reaches its climax.
And just weeks after 92,000 viewers tuned in to the action during the football international break, an audience of 100,000 is not out of the question – with no Premier League football distraction again.
Let those figures sink in for a moment. (Four seconds normally works.)
This is futsal. In England. A nation without a national team pathway, after the FA axed the programme in 2020 to cut costs at the height of Covid lockdown, and no history of televised matches.
It’s not just about quantity, of course. Quality counts.
And the compelling action on court at the Wolverhampton University venue has been matched all season by the BT Sport production nous, presenters Steve Sidwell (an A-list recruit from the 11 a side world), Pippa Monique (bringing a verve to proceedings so lacking at her beloved Arsenal FC recently) and the ever-informative commentator Steven Jamieson.
Futsal luminaries Mike Skubala, Matt Hardy and Ben Tadmor have led the way on co-comms. Along with the former England and Helvecia captain Raoni Medina, who bowed out in style at last season’s Summer Showdown, two current Reading Royals stars, Alicia Povey and Seth Burkett, have blended a player’s perspective with in-the-moment tactical analysis.
Club futsal’s recent rise in England, where the FA-affiliated LNFS is also booming, mirrors the marked progress in the global game over the past 12 months as futsal has emerged from the Covid pandemic with a purpose befitting of its history as an indoor hybrid sport born out of adversity in 1930s Montevideo, nourished into adulthood during a long custody battle between Brazil and Uruguay, and taken global in the FIFA era, bequeathing a lineage of small-sided superstars from Brazilians Manoel Tobias and Falcão to Spain’s (Brazil-born) Paulo Roberto and Kike.
The successor to this list of greats, Portugal’s Ricardinho, lit up the delayed 2021 World Cup in Lithuania, captaining the selecao to glory in Lithuania, with the progress of finalists Argentina charted by Lionel Messi for his 315 million Instagram followers. In the women’s game, the Brazilian icon Amandinha led a concerted campaign for a FIFA women’s futsal World Cup.
A couple of months later, Jorge Braz’s remarkable Portugal men’s team followed up the historic World Cup win by retaining the Euros in Amsterdam, with the outstanding 20-year-old pivot Zicky Té filling the void left by the retired Ricardinho.
The tournament also thrust futsal to the forefront of the biggest geopolitical story of 2022 as Russia and Ukraine fought out a tense and dramatic semi-final in Amsterdam’s Ziggo Dome just weeks before the February invasion. The women’s European championships, scheduled for late March, was postponed until later this year, with Hungary replacing the banned Russians.
But what are the big stories about to unfold in the English club game on Saturday?
The women’s Tier 2 tussle between Cheshire and Bedford (12:15 kick-off) is preceded by the Tier 1 showdown, pitting champions London Helvecia against Birmingham (09:30). Apart from the outcome of both matches, the big question is which of the prolific goalscorers on show will excel. While Cheshire’s Kirstie Kural leads the way overall with 28 goals for Cheshire in Tier 2, the T1 final pits Helvecia goal machine duo (Emma Tune and Selin Buyukgiray) against the formidable prowess of Birmingham’s Alisha Miller, who also plays football for Wolves Women when not studying for a PhD in chemistry. All three are tied on 22 strikes for the season.
Before a ball is kicked in the men’s finals, a glamorous addition to the T1 roll call is already assured, in the form of a team sharing the club badge with the recently crowned English football women’s league and cup double winners (and men’s reigning Champions League holders, of course) Chelsea FC. With Kent United and Birmingham relegated, Chelsea FC Foundation will join Junior Roberti’s York in the futsal top flight for the first time. Chelsea will take on Loughborough’s Development side for the small matter of the T2 playoff title at 3pm.
The men’s T1 final (17:45) represents another fascinating north vs south encounter, this time between two of the oldest clubs in English futsal. Serial champions London Helvecia are out to secure another title – and precious Champions League place – when they take on Manchester, the storied club formed by futsal pioneers Simon Wright and Ilya Ovechkin back in 2006.
It’s difficult to pin down the most compelling contests in this one. Manchester’s Kai Bone – fresh from his fly keeper, double-nutmeg, goalscoring exploits against Loughborough – will perhaps find himself occupied a little closer to his own goal line with the T1 leading goalscorers Liam Palfreeman (23 goals) and pivot Claudio Ribeiro (21) lurking with intent.
Manchester’s goal threat is likely to come from Danny Stapleton, Harry Tozer and the creative thrust of the Italian playmaker Roberto Caraballese. The Portuguese powerhouse Ivan Dju, instrumental for Helvecia all season, is likely to emerge from the contest with more minutes on court than any other player. And, in a nod to the storied past of these two clubs, it would perhaps be fitting if veteran Manchester player-coach Sam Richardson rolled back the years with a show of grizzled guile on court.
Whatever happens, the tens of thousands of BT Sport viewers will hopefully realise that Saturdays freed from the distractions of the 11-a-side game can offer much to savour in a sport composed of small numbers but with a rapidly growing reputation for thrills.