In praise of futsal

My goal in writing this article is to share some of the benefits my team and others have gained by adding futsal to our regular winter soccer program.

Futsal has been such an effective development tool that we have replaced the conventional US walled indoor soccer game with it this winter. Our soccer week follows a pattern of one formal skill session on Tuesday using the futsal format, outdoor pick-up games on Saturday, and organized league play in futsal on Sunday. We are not using the walled indoor soccer game to train players at all this winter. The cost of court time and available space makes this prohibitive. I believe that when given a choice for player development, futsal does it better and more economically.

Futsal may be new to some coaches, so I’ll describe it briefly here. This is a court soccer game. Its origins are credited to Uruguay some 30 years ago. This game is common in certain areas of Brazil where the shortage of open space encourages short-sided court games and beach soccer. Because of it’s availability and small-sided format, Futsal has impacted on the early development of some of Brazil’s finest football (soccer) players. It is also played in parts of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia and is the indoor game favoured by FIFA and the English FA.

Quick definition: the name ‘Futsal’ simply combines the Spanish words for ‘Hall’ – Sala and ‘Football’ – Futbol into Futsal. It is a five-a-side game, played with hockey sized goals and a smaller ball with a reduced bounce.

Futsal is played with a goalkeeper and four field players. The character of this game is outdoor soccer played indoors. It is played in soccer’s fundamental shape, which the 4 vs. 4 format is so good at presenting. The futsal ball is smaller and heavier than the outdoor soccer ball and has dampened bounce. Players, U12 and under, play with a ball about the size of a No. 3 outdoor ball. U13 players and above, play with a ball approximating a No.4 outdoor ball. Since the court surface is usually fast and the space small, these modified balls scale the game to the size of the court remarkably well. The smaller circumference makes precision touch and the sweet spot on the ball more challenging to hit.

The rules of the game are similar to the outdoor game with some friendly modifications that fit the game to the smaller space. Throw-ins are replaced by kick-ins and the goal kick is replaced by a goal clearance. The goal clearance is a restart by the keeper using his hands to put the ball back in play with restrictions similar to those of the outdoor soccer goal kick.

Substitutions are made on the fly, including the keeper. Most importantly, the game is played with touchlines and goal lines, with all the consequences that go with them. Simply put, a bad play with the ball may result in the ball leaving the field of play with the resulting loss of possession being the consequence. This game also emphasizes skill and control. Rough play is discouraged. Shoulder charges and slide tackles are forbidden. Fouls are tracked and teams penalized for playing too roughly. As in basketball, a sanction is placed on a team after 5 fouls have been assessed in each half. In futsal, this sanction takes the form of a revised free kick process. Only the goalkeeper may defend the goal during the taking of the kick. The offending team loses the privilege of their wall and the ball is spotted on the second penalty spot 10 meters from the goal. As you can see, this is a strong deterrent to rough play. I have rarely seen a game get to this point with young players.


Futsal is great for young players.

It provides numerous ball touches in a short period of time and it presents many of the fundamental tactical patterns of the big soccer game. The game contains many of the challenges faced in the final third of the field and provides repeated opportunities to finish. As a requirement of all teaching, futsal provides repetition and recognizable consequence for poor execution. Conversely, it also reinforces good play with tangible results, mostly shots and goals. In most coach’s training sessions, the 4 vs. 4 format is often used. Its effectiveness in teaching players both skill and tactics is widely recognized. The 4 vs. 4 game can present all the primary combination plays. It emphasizes both offensive and defensive support, but most importantly – immediate transition.

Futsal can be a brutally honest game. It will isolate and expose your team’s deficiencies. It will also showcase your teams strengths. The game is fast and numerous finishing opportunities are offered when played well. Technical and tactical speeds are emphasized. A bad touch or a slow recovery will almost always result with a loss of possession. Quite frequently the lesson is driven home with a goal scored by the opposition. These lessons learned hard are not easily forgotten. The satisfying thing about this game is that these lessons are quickly learned and that players readily adjust themselves to the game’s demands. Coaching clinicians have often stressed that the game is the best teacher. By putting players in learning situations, the results of the decisions and their technical execution will educate them with a minimum of coaching involvement. In futsal, you can see this happen.

When teaching young players, I think some coaches struggle with getting effective player movement off the ball. Players tend to feel that their work is done after they deliver the ball to a teammate or when a shot is taken. In this game, supporting movements and management of space are keys to success. Slow transition and lazy supporting play will result in turnovers and goals to the opposition. This game requires strong play in these areas. If not shored up, the score can get ugly. Team success requires good spatial management, patience, and poise. Goalkeepers must be more than an obstacle standing in front of the goal, they must also play in the field and support the attack. A good futsal goalkeeper plays is a sweeper and a goalkeeper. Because of the speed of the game, communication and anticipation are necessary and are usually rewarded with ball possession and finishing opportunities. Finishing opportunities generate enthusiasm and reinforce quality decisions and execution. This is a position-less game (excluding the goalkeepers). Players must continually rotate between defensive positions in the back and attacking runs to the front. Players must organize themselves to maintain both defensive and attacking shape.

I think futsal’s advantage over 5 a side is that it naturally teaches good habits. My experience with 5 a side is that it doesn’t punish bad play or bad decisions. In some cases, a bad decision can turn into an assist with a lucky carom off the wall. Since the ball is kept in play by the boards, players don’t have a consequence for a misplayed ball or for bad tactics. A player in trouble can be redeemed with a kick off the wall that sometimes results in an accidental assist or an opportunity to maintain possession. I have watched my young player’s movement and work rate diminish steadily over a 9-week season in walled soccer. Sometimes the game declines into a long kick and chase game where possession and control lose importance. Futsal demands play to feet or to playable space. Players learn good possession habits, how to make space, and how to attack space.

Futsal’s most powerful selling point to players is that they get more playing time and shots on goal.

“In a 40 minute Futsal match, a field player on a team using a dynamic system of play…will touch the ball once every 29.5 seconds . . . that’s just over 80 possessions per player per match, if the player plays the entire match. This compares to only 30 to 40 possessions per player in a full 90 minute outdoor soccer match.”

Because of futsal’s smaller pitch, touches and shots per minute are also increased. Possession and shots in futsal are more frequent. This playing time differential sells the game to kids.

One of the powerful attributes of this game is its accessibility. Any basketball gym will work. Any open warehouse space will do. You can even play futsal on grass or concrete!

Bottom line? Futsal is a great training tool for developing soccer players. It is also a very fun and safe game to play and an excellent alternative to traditional 5 a side indoor soccer.