What is futsal? A beginner's guide

The small-sided game that is big in much of Europe and all over the world; our quick guide to watching futsal.

UEFA via Sportsfile

What is futsal?

Futsal is the FIFA-recognised form of small-sided indoor football (the word is a contraction of the Spanish 'fútbol sala'). It is played between two teams who each have five players on the pitch at any one time, with rolling substitutes and a smaller ball than soccer that is harder and less bouncy.

The small amount of space means players must have great technique and skill, and as well as a professional sport in its own right with national and international championships, it is also considered a development tool for 11-a-side football.

A brief history of futsal

What became futsal was developed in 1930s Uruguay by a teacher named Juan Carlos Ceriani, originally to play on a basketball court. In writing the laws he took the five-a-side team sizes and 40-minute match duration from basketball, pitch and goal dimensions from handball, and goalkeeper rules from water polo.

The game soon spread throughout South America, where the rules were standardised and the first international confederation was formed in 1965. In 1989, FIFA took over as the sport's governing body, holding the first edition of its World Cup that January in the Netherlands, Brazil beating the hosts in the final.

The first UEFA tournament came in 1996, won by hosts Spain, and there followed a full UEFA European Futsal Championship in 1999, Russia victorious. Eight teams were involved in those finals; by 2022, there will be a 16-team competition in the Netherlands with 50 of UEFA's 55 members entering qualifying. A club UEFA Futsal Cup began in 2001/02 and is now the UEFA Futsal Champions League, dovetailing with professional competitions in much of the continent.

In countries like Brazil, Argentina, Portugal and Spain, it is normal for young players to grow up playing futsal, and even those that switch to football credit their skills to the small-sided game – stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Wissam Ben Yedder, who played futsal for France before being capped in 11-a-side.

Wissam Ben Yedder on futsal
Wissam Ben Yedder on futsal

Playing positions

  • The fluid nature of futsal means outfield players usually cover the whole pitch but will generally have primary roles.
  • Not all formations utilise all of the positions. Some players are known as 'Universal' and can fill any of the roles.

Goalkeeper: Can handle the ball in the penalty box but more engaged in outfield play than in football, with the small pitch size making throws important. Often will tape their fingers rather than wear gloves to aid throwing.

Defender: Usually the last man ahead of the goalkeeper but also important in starting and joining attacks.

Winger: Often the most skilful and creative players, and crucial in both attack and defence.

Pivot: Typically the most forward player on the pitch. Their job is not just as a goalscorer but as someone that can hold the ball up with back to goal before releasing team-mates.

European/world futsal competitions

Futsal EURO 2018 final highlights
Futsal EURO 2018 final highlights

National team

UEFA Futsal EURO (holders Portugal)
UEFA Women's Futsal EURO (holders Spain)
UEFA Under-19 Futsal EURO (holders Spain)
FIFA Futsal World Cup (holders Argentina)
Youth Olympics boys' tournament (holders Brazil)
Youth Olympics girls' tournament (holders Portugal)

Club

UEFA Futsal Champions League (holders Sporting CP)

Rules

The key differences to football ...

  • Teams have squads of 14, of which five (including one goalkeeper) can be on the pitch at any one time, with rolling and unlimited substitutions.
  • Teams can replace a regular goalkeeper with a 'flying goalkeeper'; an outfield player in a special shirt in goalkeeper's colours. The power play-style tactic helps coaches to change games and especially chase goals when losing.
  • Each half lasts 20 minutes, with a clock that stops whenever the ball is out of play; both coaches can also call a one-minute time-out each at any point in either half. In Barcelona, the semi-finals and final can go to extra time, comprising two periods of five minutes. If scores are level after 50 minutes (or 40 in the third-place play-off), a penalty shoot-out will ensue from the six-metre mark. In a recent change to the FIFA laws, the shoot-out will now consist of five kicks each before any sudden death, back up from three.
  • Free-kicks and penalties generally work as in football. However, once a team have committed five fouls in one half, for every subsequent foul their opponents get a free shot at goal from the second penalty mark, ten metres out (often known as a double penalty). If the foul is closer to goal, the shot can be taken from where the infringement occurred. At half-time foul counts are wiped clean, but they are not erased prior to either extra-time period, where second-half fouls still count.
  • There are four match officials: the referee on the touchline opposite the benches and a second referee on other touchline (both can enter the pitch if needed), a third official by the table on halfway to monitor the substitutions and foul count, and liaise with the other official, the timekeeper.
  • Players are dismissed for two yellow cards or a direct red, and take no further part in the action. Following a sending-off, the penalised team play one man short for two minutes, unless they concede during that time in which case they return to full strength immediately. The player that was sent off, however, cannot be used again.
  • Players can go into the penalty area and goalkeepers are allowed out, but the latter cannot touch the ball again once they have cleared it (via as many touches as they like) until it has gone into the opposition half or been touched by an opponent. Goal clearances must be thrown, not kicked.
  • If the ball goes over the touchline or hits the ceiling, play is resumed with a kick-in. Goals cannot be scored direct from a kick-in. If the ball crosses the byline, it results in either a corner or a thrown goal clearance by the keeper.
  • For kick-ins, free-kicks, goal clearances and corner kicks, the player in possession of the ball has four seconds to restart play which the referee will count with their fingers in the air. If play isn't restarted within four seconds an indirect free-kick will be awarded to the opposing team. The goalkeeper is not allowed to control the ball for more than four seconds in their own half.

Most successful teams

National

Spain: Won seven out of ten men's senior UEFA futsal titles as well as two FIFA Futsal World Cups, and the inaugural European women's and U19 championships in 2019.

Spain win first women's title
Spain win first women's title

Portugal: Futsal EURO holders after beating Spain in the 2018 final.

Russia: Won Futsal EURO 1999 and reached four finals since; also runners-up at the 2018 World Cup.

Italy: European champions in 2003 and 2014, World Cup finalists in 2004.

Brazil: Won five out of eight World Cups.

Argentina: World Cup holders after beating Russia in the 2016 final in Colombia.

Iran: Won 12 out of 15 Asian futsal titles and took 2016 World Cup bronze having become the only nation other than Spain to knock out Brazil, in the round of 16.

European club

Inter FS (ESP): Won five UEFA Futsal Cups (now UEFA Futsal Champions League titles) and reached eight finals overall of the 19-year-old competition.

Highlights: Inter beat Sporting for fifth UEFA Futsal Cup title
Highlights: Inter beat Sporting for fifth UEFA Futsal Cup title

Barça (ESP): Two UEFA titles and hosting the 2020 finals.

Playas de Castellón (ESP): Won the first UEFA Futsal Cups in 2001/02 and 2002/03, though (now competing as Bisontes) no longer in the top Spanish division.

Murcia FS (ESP): Inter's longest-standing domestic challengers in Spain (their five titles are topped only by Inter's 14) and hosts of the first UEFA Futsal Cup four-team event in 2007, finishing runners-up the following year.

Kairat Almaty (KAZ): The only non-Spanish two-time UEFA champions; they have participated in the four-team finals a record eight times since the format was introduced in 2006/07.

FC Dynamo (RUS): UEFA Futsal Cup winners in 2007 and runners-up on five other occasions. Record 11-time Russian champions but after financial difficulties the club, based for much of their history in Moscow, ceased to exist in June.

Dina Moskva (RUS): Nothing to do with Dynamo but spearheaded by that club's future president Konstantin Eremenko, Dina dominated Russian futsal in the 1990s and had much success in the unofficial competitions that preceded the launch of the UEFA Futsal Cup in 2001/02. Reached the UEFA final four in 2014/15.

Benfica & Sporting CP (POR): These Lisbon neighbours have a rivalry at least as intense as their football club-mates, having between them won every Portuguese championshop since 2003. Both have one UEFA title to their name, Benfica in 2010 and Sporting in 2019, their fourth final appearance and record-equalling third in a row (though they fell before last four four in defending their crown).

2019 highlights: Sporting claim title in Almaty
2019 highlights: Sporting claim title in Almaty

Playing legends

Falcão: Generally held to be the sport's greatest player, he scored 401 goals in 258 appearances for Brazil, winning the 2008 and 2012 World Cups.

Manoel Tobias: With more than 300 caps and nearly as many goals for Brazil, a key part of the 1992 and 1996 World Cup winners. His 19 goals in the 2000 edition is still a record and his career World Cup tally of 43 is bettered only by Falcão's 48 (no one else has over 30).

Konstantin Eremenko: Prolific Russia pivot whose 11 goals in winning the UEFA Futsal EURO of 1999, and career total of 44 in the competition including qualifying, may never be beaten. He scored well over 1,000 goals in his career, 122 for Russia and 972 for the dominant Russian club of the 1990s, Dina Moskva. Forced to retire in 2001, he became president of FC Dynamo the next year and oversaw their rise to European prominence, but died of a heart attack in March 2010.

Luis Amado: Won two World Cups and five Futsal EUROs as Spain goalkeeper as well as three UEFA Futsal Cups with Inter. Amado is considered by many the greatest No1 in the sport's history. Retired in 2016.

Schumacher: Nicknamed after the German goalkeeper but a defender in futsal that oozed class, Schumacher helped Brazil win the 2008 World Cup against Spain, where he spent 11 years as a player for Inter, winning three UEFA Futsal Cups.

Javi Rodriguez: His two late ten-metre penalties gave Spain victory in the 2000 World Cup and he went on to help them retain the title in 2004 and lift four Futsal EUROs. Long-time captain of his country, he also won the UEFA Futsal Cup with both Castellón and Barça. Now a successful coach.

Kike: Alongside Amado and Javi Rodriguez in the golden Spain generation, Kike was a defender of ability and tactical insight. Retired in 2014 with two World Cups and five EUROs to his credit, plus multiple national titles with Murcia.

Watch Ricardinho’s stunner against Serbia
Watch Ricardinho’s stunner against Serbia

Ricardinho: 'O Mágico' has a tattoo of Falcão and the Portuguese winger is quite often bracketed with the Brazilian in the futsal pantheon. As a teenager he made his Portugal debut and reached the 2003/04 UEFA Futsal Cup final with Benfica, whom he helped lift the trophy in Lisbon in 2010. After spells in Japan and Russia, he joined Inter in 2013 and aided them to two UEFA Futsal Cup successes in 2017 and 2018, among many other titles; now with ACCS in France. His spectacular tournament showings for Portugal culminated in their UEFA Futsal EURO win of 2018, with Ricardinho the seven-goal top scorer.

Ortiz: Another key part of Spain's success with four Futsal EURO titles, as well as UEFA crowns with Inter in 2009, 2017 and 2018. Has moved with Ricardinho to ACCS. A defender who often rotated with Kike and is now Spain's most-capped player with 200 in his sights.