Futsal at Durham: “You need people who are more well-rounded than football”

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“If it wasn’t for Futsal, I wouldn’t be the player I am today”. In one sentence, Cristiano Ronaldo puts forward perhaps the best advert for futsal the sport could ever ask for. Lionel Messi, Neymar Jr, Philippe Coutinho, and many others, reserve similar praise for a sport often maligned as football’s very little brother.

As I discussed with DU Men’s Futsal co-President Jesse Bakare, Brazil’s ‘national laboratory of improvisation’ has now made its way to Team Durham. Played in teams of five, on a smaller, normally indoor pitch, Bakare described futsal as “kind of like basketball, but football”. A heavier ball is used, and the clock is stopped whenever the ball goes out of play, so it’s clear to see where the comparison comes from.

Only established five years ago, Men’s Futsal has risen quickly to its current status as a Team Durham club. Bakare runs the club alongside Jad El Kari. They now have three teams of eight, which were whittled down from more than 80 trialists after a surge of interest at the Freshers’ Fair. They are trained by FA-qualified coach Alan Evans, in an effort to help the teams become more competitive.

“It’s more fast-paced, it’s more exciting, it’s more thrilling”

It seems to be working – the first team recently beat Teeside 1s 12-4. Although the first team were relegated from 1 in 2019, Bakare assures me that, “under my watch, we’re going to get promoted again”. Both the 1s and 2s are now both in Tier 2, with the 3s in Tier 3.

With my best Jordan Belfort impression, minus the fraud and coercion, I asked Bakare to ‘sell me this sport’, and he certainly didn’t disappoint. “It’s more fast-paced, it’s more exciting, it’s more thrilling […] when you play five-a-side, you rely on every single person on your team. There’s a close-knit culture within the team, futsal definitely inspires that over football.”

Whilst comparisons between football and futsal seem only natural, a lot of our conversation focussed on their compatibility. Bakare also captains his college football first team, Hild Bede 1s, which he’s clearly proud to tell me have just been promoted back to the Durham big time, the Premiership.

“I definitely think futsal helps you to become a better footballer”, he tells me. “In futsal, if you get the ball, it’s instantly in press and you’ve got to a) have quick decision making and b) you’ve got to have good end quality and dribbling. You’re always under pressure […] and also because the goals are smaller, your opportunities to shoot are less, so you need to always be accurate.”

“It’s much higher intensity than football, I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t understand. Everyone kind of plays in every single position, so in that sense you need people who are more well-rounded than in football.”

Alongside this, he emphasises the impact futsal has on teamwork and communication, saying: “If you have a team that isn’t quite gelling, isn’t quite communicating, you will lose every match.”

The skills you gain from futsal clearly help footballers from Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Portugal to improve their game, so it’s disappointing to see the state it’s in in England. Depending on where you look, it seems to vary between dire and non-existent. The national team ranks 60th in the world, behind Tajikistan, Kuwait, and the Solomon Islands. It was catastrophically affected by Covid-19, as the FA scrapped a newly announced £900,000 investment plan in the game and offered no real replacement.

Max Kilman, who is now a fixture of the Wolverhampton Wanderers defence, started his career in the England futsal setup. He got 25 caps for the side, having made his debut aged 18. Now 24, he’s played every minute in the Premier League this season and unsurprisingly credits much of his development to his time playing futsal. Kilman is a walking representation of why futsal needs investment.

As has been discussed, futsal and football certainly don’t need to be mutually exclusive; they actively complement each other. This is something that women’s futsal in Durham has over the men. Durham University Women’s Football Club (DUWAFC) boasts not only three ‘serious contenders for top of their respective leagues’ in football, but also three ‘competitive futsal teams’. Players from the football teams play for the futsal teams, and vice versa. Given the success of both sides, you have to suggest that it works as a system.

The success of the women’s side helps back-up Bakare’s claims that futsal in Durham “could definitely be bigger than it is”. He’s a big believer that once you watch futsal, it’s hard not to get hooked. He’s hoping that the team’s success this season could inspire a wave of futsal enthusiasm in Durham. “I want to get people down, maybe if we get to the semi-finals or finals of the Northern Cup. I think if people actually watch a game, they would probably stop with the chat.”

However, futsal in England is starting to show positive signs of life too. A three-year deal was recently signed between the National Futsal Series and BT Sport, committing to showing 110 hours of futsal throughout the 2021/22 season, split evenly between the men’s and women’s games.

“It helps you become a better footballer”

This deal should bring both viewers and players to the sport and should hopefully inspire the FA to reconsider their short-sighted decision to cut funding. As former England U-19 captain Jared Rand said, this may well be the “first step in taking the sport from an amateur level to a professional one.”

Bakare’s enthusiasm for the sport is infectious and I’m sure I’ll find myself watching a game at Maiden Castle sooner rather than later. He’s aiming to continue growing the sport’s profile in Durham, saying, “I’m trying to properly form a club community, grow our presence in that sense. I also plan to have more socials and run a pretty tight ship in terms of training.”

In terms of growing the game across England, he advises we look to Power Leagues, the biggest company behind five-a-side football in England. Power Leagues has over 30,000 competitors across 200 UK locations. They see over ten million games played every year. Pushing these numbers towards futsal would instantly regenerate the sport in Britain.

Alongside this, we often see stories of incredibly promising young academy footballers who get released from club programmes. If these players grew up with futsal as an alternative, then being released could present a new world of opportunities, both for these bright young talents and for the sport itself.

Whilst the FA may be ignoring futsal, it’s wonderful that Durham isn’t. There’s futsal for both men and women even at college level and the University teams are going from strength to strength.

The sport that made Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo who they are today is now gracing the North East. If you enjoy watching or playing football, Bakare, and I, encourage you to give futsal a chance. With the weather already knocking freezing, there’s no better time than the present.

Image: Durham Futsal

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