Fantastic Five-a-side - Is Futsal taking over traditional football?

Football in India had a remarkable 2016-17 season. Both Mumbai teams had contrasting fortunes: - Mumbai City FC finished atop the Indian Super League (ISL) table while Mumbai FC were relegated to the I-League second division. Kerala Blasters suffered a heartbreaking loss in their second ISL final in three seasons, Aizawl FC pulled a historical I-League triumph, the national team continued to make steady progress towards a 2019 AFC Cup qualification, and, the crowning jewel of the season, India hosted and participated in the 2017 FIFA Under-17 World Cup.

What went unnoticed amid the chaos and excitement, however, was a silent revolution that began in a city that does not host an I-League nor an ISL club.

Hyderabad, revered for its early contribution to India’s football heritage, has struggled to provide opportunities to its young footballers in recent decades. The city’s football culture has been overshadowed by that of its southern counterparts - Bengaluru, Chennai and Kochi. It does not help that, according to state level players, there is alleged mismanagement of the sport by the Telangana Football Association.

The situation with the state league, in fact, was so bad that selections would start a fortnight before a game, with the final team announced just 10 days prior, giving the players no time for practice matches that would help them come together as a unit. In comparison, Kerala’s state team selections happen 3 months before their first match where 30 players are chosen for a month-long residential camp and 20 make it to the tournament squad.

“There has been a decline in the city as far as full-field football is concerned,” says 23-year-old Zubair bin Sultan, who has played across seven age-groups for his state and has travelled across India for football. “We play the Telangana A division but there are no water facilities. If you win the league, there is nothing - no prize money. People are playing because nothing is left for them, which is why players are flocking towards 5-a-side.”

The apathy from the federation, lack of top division representation and dearth of space in a developing city has driven Hyderabad’s football players towards the shorter, faster version of football, spurring a revolution that is yet unparalleled across India.

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Futsal is believed to have been founded in the 1930s by a teacher named Juan Carlos Ceriani Gravier. When in Uruguay, Juan sought a way to keep students engaged in physical activity while indoors. He took the most popular pastime, football, and generously borrowed rules and regulations from three other sports - basketball, handball and water polo - condensing football into a shorter, faster and more exhilarating format.

The 5 vs. 5 format - where sliding tackles are rare and ankles are always nipped at, where goalposts are small and precision wins over force, where players’ positions are fluid and stoppages are few, and where time is short and comebacks are a dime-a-dozen - is among the fastest growing sports in the world.

About the Writer

Pulasta is a football commentator and award-winning sports writer. He has worked for the All India Radio, BBC Leicester, The Post Newspapers-Zambia, Firstpost, Mint Lounge & Scroll among others.@TheFalseNo9