As a professional sport futsal may be in its infancy, but there are distinct signs of maturity as the game grows in stature and popularity.
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It is 20 years since the first UEFA futsal club competition concluded with a final in front of 1,500 fans in Lisbon. Only 27 associations entered teams that season: in this Futsal Champions League (the fourth since the Futsal Cup was rebranded), 55 clubs from 51 nations took part.
The last time the finals were played in front of fans pre-COVID-19, an aggregate attendance of around 40,000 watched the four 2019 matches in Almaty. Such is futsal’s status now that the top teams can attract crowds even outside the sport’s traditional hotbeds, hence the decision to stage this tournament in a neutral venue and open the game to a wider audience. Riga is just the second city to host the finals as a neutral venue; the other time was last year, when the Croatian city of Zadar hosted a behind-closed-doors event in the grip of the pandemic.
The 2002 UEFA Futsal Cup final was only the fourth time European football’s governing body had handed out a trophy in the small-sided sport, having previously organised national-team EUROs in 1996, 1999 and 2001. This year alone sees four UEFA futsal tournaments! Portugal won the expanded 16-team men’s UEFA Futsal EURO in Amsterdam in February, and after the Futsal Champions League finals still to come in 2022, we have the UEFA Women’s EURO in Portugal and UEFA Under-19 Futsal EURO in Spain.
UEFA president Alexander Čeferin
"Futsal’s status and appeal has grown considerably – the result of a new strategy implemented by UEFA designed to increase the sport’s profile and exposure at all levels."
That means hundreds of futsal fixtures under UEFA auspices, on top of thriving leagues throughout Europe. Futsal is no longer football’s little brother or a development tool for budding soccer stars. It is beginning to stand on its own two feet.
That said, there is plenty of synergy and cross-promotion to be had from the sharing of sporting knowledge between the two codes, as well as enthusiastic endorsement from football’s biggest names. It is no coincidence that three of the four contenders in Riga are the futsal sections of clubs principally famous for their exploits in the outdoor game.
Funding futsal's growth
UEFA and its member national associations are the governing bodies for both sports in Europe, and the revenue generated by the major football competitions plays its part in funding the development of futsal. Most directly, any national association represented in one or more of UEFA’s futsal competitions, including at club level, is entitled to an incentive payment: in 2020 that amounted to an annual figure of up to €55,000.
The incentive payments are part of UEFA’s HatTrick programme, for which the European governing body has committed €775.5m from the revenue raised by the men’s football EURO over the next four years to help associations develop the game in all forms and at all levels. Each association can receive up to €4.5m over the 2020–24 cycle, with some choosing to dedicate funds towards specific futsal projects.
Examples include San Marino’s new 1,000-seat futsal arena capable of hosting international fixtures, and mobile pitches in colder nations like Finland and also Spain, where the pitch is used by the national team to promote futsal across the country. The French Football Federation is using the funds to convert existing outdoor multi- sport spaces and unused tennis courts into 40m x 20m structures dedicated to futsal.
Germany is not a futsal power and their men’s national team only made their debut in 2016. But the German Football Association (DFB) aims to join the elite, and broke ground this season with the new Futsal Bundesliga: a ten-team national league with streamed matches and halls set up with dedicated futsal pitches for optimum presentation.
Marcel Loosveld, who played for and coached the Netherlands before becoming Germany coach, said: "In futsal, we want to do justice to the DFB’s position in the football world. The introduction of the Bundesliga is an important building block. Our national players can compete regularly at a high level, which will make them better individually and the national team will benefit."
From the professional stars playing in Riga or at this year’s Futsal EURO in the Netherlands, to those countries and newer teams still finding their way, the sport’s ecosystem is thriving across the continent despite the setback of the pandemic.