New England International Futsal Challenge brings skills—and goals—to Boston

A futsal match between Benfica and Belenenses.
A futsal match between Benfica and Belenenses. –Mio/YouTube

Indoor soccer is nothing new to New England. In fact, soccer was the dominant sport at the Springfield YMCA before 1895, when Dr. James Naismith introduced basketball in an attempt to promote exercise, using a ball that might also preserve the windows.

In Boston, full-scale, 11-v-11 indoor games were being played in the 1800s, and professional teams conducted tournaments in the Commonwealth Armory in the early 1900s.

But the New England International Futsal Challenge is presenting the game on Dec. 13 at UMass Boston in a way that has only recently become familiar in the Boston area. Futsal is short for “fútbol de salón,’’ or indoor soccer. Take note: It’s not the sort of indoor soccer that predominates in the U.S. that is played in spaces resembling hockey rinks minus the ice.

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Futsal playing fields are similar to basketball courts. There are no dasher boards to keep the ball in play.

“It’s 5 vs. 5, a lot of quick breaks,’’ former New England Revolution general manager Craig Tornberg said this week. “There is a shot every 45 seconds, a goal every six minutes. The game moves very quickly and it’s tremendous for developing technical skills.

“The ball is heavier and it bounces half the height of a regular ball, so the ball is played on the ground, primarily. It’s quick movement in small spaces and the ball moves fast, which makes it such an interesting game.’’

Think FC Barcelona’s give-and-go style and triangle spacing — only quicker. The speed of futsal is actually faster than the way Lionel Messi & co. play.

“Players have no time and no space,’’ said Tornberg, who is promoting the event along with New England Futsal’s Bill Sampaio. “You see this high pressure, and players who do not have the technical skill will many times cough up the ball outdoors. Here, the pressure is on the ball consistently. The ability to move the ball quickly and create space is a critical component of the game.

“It’s generally a clean game but that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of body to body. You see amazing balance, how they keep it when they get that first nudge. Skill and technique is the master. A quick touch, acceleration and the ability to recognize angles. Like you see Messi, accelerating in small space and beating a person and getting shots.’’

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Many of the world’s great players developed skills playing futsal. The sport began in Uruguay in the 1930s, after the men’s national soccer team won the first World Cup. Futsal spread through South America, eventually finding its way to Europe and then earning FIFA sanctioning in the 1980s. Brazilian striker Ronaldo, a member of World Cup-winning teams in 1994 and 2002, was among the first international superstars to credit futsal for his development. But another Brazilian, Ronaldinho, might have been the first to translate the flamboyance and precision of futsal to the highest levels of the outdoor game.

This tournament includes four teams: Belenenses from Portugal; a Rio de Janeiro select team guided by Marco Avellar, a former Vasco da Gama junior team coach; three-time national champion Safira FC of Boston; and a U.S. Select team.

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Many of the players are professionals, including Belenenses goalkeeper Carlos Paulo, who was a reserve on the Benfica team that won the 2009-10 UEFA Futsal title.

The Safira team has set standards for the sport locally, and includes high-scoring Brazilian forward Junior Alencar.

“This is a hotbed,’’ Tornberg said. “It’s been around on an organized level for about 20 years but there are a lot of coaches who have never seen it at this level. This is similar to the Revolution when we started. There were a lot of kids playing but they hadn’t seen a high-level game. So we provided an education. There was a thirst and a fan base and we gave them a place where kids could aspire to play it at a high level.’’

In the 1980s, before the U.S. Soccer Federation began administering futsal, indoor games were conducted in varying conditions. The first Boston-area building dedicated to indoor soccer was the South Shore Sports Center in Hingham, which set up different-sized fields in a 60,000 square-foot converted tennis facility in 1982.

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“In New England, they put it in these hockey rinks and made it a big and strong game, with bigger guys closing space and using the boards,’’ Tornberg said. “This (futsal) field is a little bigger than a basketball court, with no boards, and keeping the ball in play is a tremendous art. It teaches you to play give and go with a person, not the boards. And that translates when you go outdoors, because it’s more realistic to what’s taking place outdoors.’’

Indoor soccer’s local roots are tied to the climate restricting outdoor play. But futsal’s benefits are translating to the outdoor game.

“Now, the word is out it develops a much better technical athlete for soccer,’’ Tornberg said. Tornberg said players from the Oliver Ames High School team that won the Division 2 boys’ championship last month developed skills in futsal.

“It’s easy to say you want players with composure and who understand space and time,’’ Tornberg said. “But it’s another thing to get them do it. This is another resource for coaches, for those six months when you can’t play outside or you can play in a boarded area, which doesn’t replicate anything. Kids are learning more and more in New England and their technical ability is increased. So, when they go outdoors, the speed is slower.

“One of the reasons kids in this area adopted it is you’re always on the ball and touching the ball a lot. You’ve got to move. You can’t sit still. You’re always finding those angles and recognizing when and where to move. It’s incredibly fast and that appeals to a lot of people.’’

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