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New dawn for futsal in India

As one of the largest countries in the world with second largest population and with huge cities that limit space, one could argue that India has perfect conditions for growth of futsal.

It comes as a surprise then to learn that there is currently no active futsal championship in India. Nevertheless, there is some big prospect on the horizon. But, before we get to that, we need to make a small recap on some of the things done in the past in regard to futsal in India.

Premier Futsal

Many futsal pundits are familiar with Premier Futsal, or in its full name: Asian Premier Futsal Championship. Judging by its name, it seems that it wanted to create a regional franchise-based futsal league. In reality, it was limited only to India and it was never a league, but a tournament that spanned roughly two weeks.

It proposed to have 16 teams, but only managed to get 6 teams in the course of two seasons. It is also very well worth noting that Premier Futsal did not abide with rules of international futsal. For example, matches were played out in 4 periods of 10 minutes, the ball was thrown-in back to play instead of kicked-in, etc.

What was also interesting is that each team had a marquee football player as a sort of representative and that team’s brand. And some of football’s greatest players answered this call: Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Hernan Crespo, Michel Salgado, Cafu and Ronaldinho. Falcão was the only futsal marquee player in the tournament, but Premier Futsal made sure they bring one of the best ever. He was also tournament’s ambassador.

"There are six teams, each team will have four futsal players, three Indians, a football legend and a freestyle player. There must always be two football players on the court, one Indian and one football legend / freestyle player. This is the rule. Everyone plays against everyone, then it’s semifinal and final. It’s a great idea and it has everything to be really coolsaid Falcão for ESPN at that time.

Mumbai Warriors were champions of this tournament both times it was held, with Ryan Giggs as their marquee player/promotor. Sadly, due to some organizational and financial issues, the tournament was dissolved after 2017 edition.

In addition, there were some notions that rapid growth of futsal in the country was undermining the growth of Indian Super League (professional football competition) and that All India Football Federation felt threatened because of it. Rumors of corporate shadow boxing and “bullying by deeper pocket rivals” that persuaded sponsors to leave the competition were also “in the grapevine”.

So, why are we discussing about this defunct futsal-like tournament here and now?

India - Potentialy Great Futsal Market

Despite many of its flaws, Premier Futsal received a worldwide publicity and it showed that there is a huge interest for futsal in India.

Premier Futsal Facebook page alone received more than half million followers. The broadcasting rights were bought by Sony and all Premier Futsal matches were televised live on a number of channels and were available for livestream as well.

The standard of production and light show seen at the matches was spectacular and it put to shame some of the earlier Futsal World Cup events which was very effective for TV purposes, but also in attracting fans to matches and in front of their TV sets.

As per the ratings, 15 match Premier Futsal league had 3 times more unique viewers and average viewership than the 61 match ISL’s 2nd season in 2015. Clip of Ronaldinho scoring 5 goals against Bangalore became one of the most watched sports videos in over a decade!

Without any doubt, the biggest attention magnet were famous football players. Although the tournament got widespread attention because of them, ex-football legends often diluted the entertainment value and put focus away from futsal, which is a bad thing in a long-run. But, to gain initial momentum it did great.

And that’s all very inspiring, but the tournament is finished and we were left with no futsal competition in India. Until recently, when All India Football Federation (AIFF) announced the start of its own futsal league!

Indian Futsal League

In December 2019, AIFF Executive Committee unanimously decided that a new futsal club competition will be part of their competition calendar from 2020 onwards. Worth noting is their decision that AIFF holds all rights to any futsal competition in the country.

AIFF executives are hoping that new futsal competition will add more value to Indian football and that it will attract many young people – male and female. Also, they hope futsal will improve their technical skills and develop tactical awareness.

Based on the early reports, the inaugural futsal league should be a season opener, a “curtain raiser”, for the new ISL football season. It should last around three weeks. It was supposed to start in early September, but its start was pushed back due to Covid-19 reasons. Some reports believe the league should start this November and it should take place in one venue.

AIFF invited clubs from football leagues, ISL, I-League and Second Division, to field their own futsal teams for the futsal league to gain momentum. Apparently, response from the clubs was positive. Also, some Indian states made their own “qualification” tournaments, and winning teams from these tournaments can also take part.

Few months back, The Navhind Times reported that, “according to reliable sources”, ten clubs from Indian football pyramid confirmed their participation. They are Bengaluru FC, FC Goa, Odisha FC, Kerala Blasters, Gokulam Kerala, Aizawl FC, TRAU, Rajasthan FC, Mohammedan Sporting and ARA FC. It is also stated that East Bengal and Jamshedpur FC are in talks and could join as well, but no further confirmation was found.

Major difference from the Premier Futsal is that there will be no foreign players involved.

Future of Futsal in India

The new futsal competition offers great prospect for development of futsal in India, especially since it was confirmed that standard international futsal rules will apply. This second most populous country in the world seems eager to start its futsal adventure if viewership numbers of Premier Futsal are any indication.

World-class football legends that played on that tournament were attendance magnet without doubt, but it is not farfetched to theorize that many of the people watching fell in love with attractiveness of futsal.

New competition can also serve as a great platform for India to finally create their own national futsal team. Since the new competition will field out mostly, if not only, Indian players, this should be a great player’s pool for future national team.

What seems a bit disheartening is that inaugural futsal competition will last only for three days and it will be perceived as “curtain opener” on new football season.

We often highlighted that this could be a good strategy to gain some momentum and to familiarize broad public with futsal. However, in a long run it is not beneficial at all for sport of futsal and AIFF should think how to expand this competition to a more regular season-long schedule and develop futsal as its own sport in entirety.