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What Is Futsal? (+5 Superstars Who Grew Up Playing It)

What Is Futsal? (+5 Superstars Who Grew Up Playing It)

Football is played by millions of people all over the world, in various different formats. There's the classic 11-a-side set-up favoured by the professional game, the 7v7 formations you often see being played at football centres on midweek evenings, as well as more informal kickabouts down a local park or playing field.

However, there's one form of football that rarely gets the attention it deserves, despite being hugely popular amongst many top players, largely for its efficacy when it comes to training aspects of the game such as ball control, first touch, short passing and possession of the ball. We're talking, of course, about futsal.

In this article, we'll give you an introduction to the game of futsal and an explanation of its important status within the footballing world. After describing what futsal is and offering a guide to the rules and key pitch dimensions, we'll take you through a list of some of the best footballers known to have honed their skills using futsal.

What Is Futsal?

The worldwide governance of football is handled by FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association), the body responsible for organising competitions such as the World Cup and the Club World Cup, regulating the rules of play and encouraging the development of the global game. Part of their remit is overseeing the global game of futsal.

Futsal is a small-sided version of soccer, with each team having five players and operating on a smaller pitch around the size of a typical basketball court. Futsal is hugely popular across the world, and it has become increasingly organised and professional in recent years.

The name 'futsal' originated in Spain, a country known for producing exactly the kind of technical, creative players futsal is known for — think of the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas and David Silva.

The word is a derivation of the Spanish "fútbol sala" or "fútbol de salón", and the Portuguese "futebol de salão" — these terms roughly translate as "indoor football", although a more literal translation is "hall/lounge football".

Futsal Vs Indoor Soccer: What's The Difference?

While futsal is built on the same foundations as association football, the main focus of the game is fairly different.

In futsal, the focus is on technical skill, close control, short passing and dribbling. The ball will remain on the ground rather than being lofted into the air for headers and loose aerial battles, and the confined space the game is played in means futsal players must have excellent technical ability and skill. 

These are the same principles that underpin a different sport that is often confused with futsal: indoor soccer. So what's the difference between indoor soccer and futsal?

The key differences are:

  • Indoor soccer must be played indoors (as the name heavily implies), while futsal — while often also played indoors — can be played on outdoor pitches.
  • Futsal uses a specialist ball (more on this later), while indoor soccer simply utilises a normal football.
  • Indoor soccer and normal soccer are both normally played on turf, while futsal is played on a hard surface court.

The History Of Futsal

The Spanish origins of the sport's name give a good indication of where it came from; futsal was first developed in Uruguay in the 1930s, by a man named Juan Carlos Ceriani.

This pioneering teacher designed the game as an amalgamation of sporting ideas: played on a basketball court with five-a-side teams of soccer players, its 40-minute match duration was taken from basketball while the pitch and goal dimensions were inspired by handball and the rules for the goalkeepers by water polo.

Since then, futsal has grown significantly. After spreading through South America and Europe, the game was picked up by FIFA in 1989, when they became the sport's governing body and hosted the first ever edition of its FIFA Futsal World Cup.

In 1996, the first ever UEFA EURO competition was launched, and hosts Spain were victorious. Meanwhile, the seriousness of futsal's global competitions continued to ramp up, with the UEFA European Futsal Championship kicking off in 1999 and the UEFA Futsal Champions League following soon after.

The growth of the game has allowed a huge amount of players to build up their technical skills, particularly in nations such as Portugal, Spain, and Argentina, where futsal is extremely popular. Soon, we'll share a few big names who have benefited from the sport, but first, it's worth digging into the rules in a little more detail.

The Rules Of Futsal

The rules of futsal are straightforward in comparison with 11-a-side football. Teams consist of five players, with rolling substitutes allowed at all times. The goals are smaller, as is the ball, and the aim is simple: to score against the opposition, and prevent them from scoring against you.

Each 40-minute match is split into two periods of 20 minutes, with a 15-minute half-time break. These games can be intense and fast-paced, and as a result, each team also has the right to call a one-minute timeout in each period of the game.

To ensure the futsal rules are followed properly, there will generally be three or four officials presiding over a match: a head referee, two assistant referees, and a timekeeper (sometimes, one of the assistants also acts as timekeeper). Video Assistant Refereeing is yet to be introduced across the board in futsal, but it's something that is currently being implemented at certain events.

How Big Is A Futsal Ball?

Futsal is played with a slightly smaller ball than 11-a-side soccer. Its size and properties are designed to aid close control and passing: it's a low-bounce ball, and is made with a surface that helps it almost stick to a player's foot when they touch the ball.

There are regulations in place to ensure consistency across the board: futsal balls are supposed to have a circumference between 62cm and 64cm, and they should weigh between 400g and 440g at the start of a match, when full of air. While professional footballers use a Size 5 football, in comparison futsal balls are closer to a Size 4.

All balls used in matches organised under the coordination of FIFA or its confederations (eg. UEFA or CONCACAF) have to meet these specific requirements.

Futsal Court Size: How Big Is A Futsal Court?

Modelled off a basketball court with a hard ground (typically made of wood or an artificial, smooth, flat, material, and usually in an indoor setting), futsal courts are very different to the large grass soccer fields we watch pro soccer players using.

The size of a futsal court can vary between different countries, so at international competitions some players may end up using courts that are slightly bigger or smaller than they're used to. This is because there are no permanent boundaries at the edge of the court, allowing the dimensions to be altered.

However, there is a range that courts must fall within: for FIFA competitions, the length of a court must be between 38 and 42 metres, while the width must be between 20 and 25 metres.

At domestic level, courts must be between 25 and 42 metres long and between 15 and 25 metres wide. The run-off space at the edge of the court next to the touchline will typically be two metres long and two metres wide.

5 Superstars Who Grew Up Playing Futsal

Neymar Junior

Neymar Junior recently became Brazil's all-time leading goalscorer, surpassing Pele's record with 79 goals in 125 international games, a remarkable achievement. Known for his incredible dribbling ability, creativity on the ball, and excellent finishing skills, he's a modern day Brazil icon, and he's got futsal to thank for that.

Growing up in Sao Paulo, Neymar regularly played futsal, honing the ball control skills that would end up making him one of the most talented attackers of the 21st century.

Andres Iniesta

The architect of the soccer skill "La croqueta" and undoubtedly one of Spain's greatest players of the 21st century, iconic former Barcelona midfield Andres Iniesta is known to have regularly played futsal while growing up. Back in 2017, he reignited those abilities, featuring in a high-profile Barcelona futsal event in Kuwait and showing off the incredible ball  skills he honed using this unique small-sided game.

According to Iniesta, football and futsal "have a lot in common... there are different tactics and moves, but the same essence of mastering the ball, combining and making quick decisions."

Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi's journey toward finally winning the World Cup in Qatar last year was a remarkable one, and there were many special moments along the way. However, perhaps the standout piece of skill he displayed during the tournament was his assist for Julian Alvarez's second goal against Croatia in the semi-final.

A beautiful mazy dribble down the right-hand side, Messi's footwork was a testament to his background in futsal. "As a little boy in Argentina, I played futsal on the streets and for my club. It was tremendous fun, and it really helped me because who I am today," he once said.

Luis Figo

There are a number of outstanding Portuguese players who have a strong background in futsal — Portugal's national team are arguably the best in the world right now, winning the 2021 FIFA Futsal World Cup, the 2018 and 2022 European Championships, and the 2022 Futsal Finalissima, an absolutely outstanding record.

Figo is one of many Portuguese players to have developed their technical ability using futsal, and when you watch his clever dribbling and intelligent movement, that experience is easy to see.

Cristiano Ronaldo

The five-time Ballon d'Or winner is another Portuguese player who has benefited from playing futsal at a young age, and the heights he's been able to reach as a result are arguably greater than any of his countrymen, past or present.

Ronaldo once stated that the size of the pitch was key in developing his game: "the small playing area helped me improve my close control, and whenever I played futsal, I felt free. If it wasn't for futsal, I wouldn't be the player I am today."