11 Aug 2019

How futsal went from nothing to sporting success story

12:37 pm on 11 August 2019

Trying to pinpoint just how and when a new sport takes off is never an easy task, but a series of chance encounters and passionate people, who didn't know it at the time, played a huge role in what became New Zealand's fastest growing sport.

No caption

Left to right - Lucas Silva, Khalid Razouk, Mohsen Maddah on the top level of the ASB Centre in Wellington. Photo: RNZ / DOM THOMAS

Futsal - the five-a-side indoor variation of football, has experienced a staggering rise in participation of well over 350 percent since 2010.

There are now over 28,000 registered players alone.

Matt Fejos, who discovered futsal in Wellington over a decade ago, said prior to 2007 there were small pockets of informal futsal going on.

He said one of the first areas it was being played was in the deprived suburbs of Naenae and Taita.

"Predominantly African and South American youth from various schools came together to play outside until late evening several nights a week."

Fejos said immigrants were the catalysts when futsal first started in Wellington.

"African, Eastern European and South American communities engaged with it from the start and taught us the game, because it is a big sport where they come from."

Serendipitous encounters

Lucas Silva moved to New Zealand from football-mad Brazil in 2005 when he was 19.

He started playing futsal when he was just six years old, and wanted to play when he arrived in Wellington but it didn't really exist.

A turning point came when Silva met a Scot called Brian Blellock in 2007, his club football coach.

"He was really keen in learning about the game and when I came along he got more and more interested."

Silva was armed with knowledge but had limited English at that time.

"I tried to transfer my knowledge to my football coach [Brian] because once he had an understanding he was good at delivering.

"So we used to like scribble notes, draw diagrams and whenever we tried to do some drills, I would demonstrate then he would realize what the drill was trying to achieve, and would take over. He would interpret what I was explaining - it was kind of like a two-way relationship."

When football trainings were rained out Blellock started doing some futsal coaching at St Patrick's College gym.

Roughly around the same time, Dave Payne, a Brit who played a lot of football growing up, got fed-up when his kids' football was rained off for the seventh week in a row.

Dave Payne played a huge role in developing futsal.

Dave Payne played a huge role in developing futsal. Photo: Supplied

He had seen a lot of futsal while travelling in Asia before settling in Wellington.

"I thought, 'why don't we start taking these 11 aside teams indoors, split them into smaller teams' get a game at least," said Payne.

So one week he hired a hall and then the next week, football got called off again.

"The next thing you know, the four teams became eight teams. And this went on for weeks and before you know it, we had like nearly 100 kids' teams playing."

In late 2007 Matt Fejos mentioned to his mum that he wanted to play indoor soccer.

She told him the neighbours did some unusual type of indoor.

He knocked on the door and met Dave Payne; he didn't know at the time that it would change his life in a big way.

Finding a home

Payne said the biggest challenge was finding a venue.

The Anglican Chinese Mission Church hall in Thorndon came up as a possibility.

"We convinced the guy that we wouldn't damage anything but there were windows all around and everyone was like 'Dave you're not going to be able to make this work'.

"So we went out and we bought the stuff you put over your veggies to protect your crop from birds. We stretched this netting as tight as we could and tacked it over the window frames so that it would take the shock out of the ball if it hit.

"It worked for a while but we were always up on ladders making it tight again. You'd be doing running repairs hanging down from ceilings during matches. Inevitably we smashed a few windows."

Despite the challenges, when Payne looks back on that hall, he can only laugh.

"The locks were all really old, there were a few times I had to scale the side of that building with is pretty high up and then pull myself through the toilet windows to get in because you'd have kids waiting outside.

"It was a real labour of love for a group of us to make it work but if we hadn't had that hall we never would have actually created the interest to really push futsal forward."

Futsal used to be played on the top floor of the Anglican Chinese Mission Church in Thorndon. The players went to great lengths to try and protect the windows from the hard ball.

Futsal used to be played on the top floor of the Anglican Chinese Mission Church in Thorndon. The players went to great lengths to try and protect the windows from the hard ball. Photo: RNZ / Bridget Tunnicliffe

Khalid Razouk met Payne, Blellock, and Silva when he started playing futsal in 2008 and got hooked.

Razouk had moved to New Zealand in 1999 with his family when he was nine years old.

An Assyrian, from Iraq, he never played organised sport until he came to New Zealand.

"We just used to play football on the street with friends and family. We would play on gravel, like we used to play with no shoes or anything like that. I've gone soft now because I've been living here," said Razouk.

He said in 2008 there were probably about eight core futsal guys, most of whom he still plays with now.

"We started playing pretty much just once a week, and then it slowly kind of turned into a semi- competition, with half a dozen teams - and that was the beginning."

A driving force

Payne believes futsal helped fill a void for people in the community who weren't involved with organized sport.

"They were a bit on the fringes, maybe new to the country, or had jobs where they worked weekends. So you had like a lot of taxi drivers and such who wanted to do something during the week and traditional formats of sport didn't suit their needs.

"What we found was that immigrants were kind of like the driving force to help us actually get it up and going."

Payne said people like Silva and Razouk did a lot behind the scenes.

"Those lads got involved with coaching the kids and yeah, it kind of became a bit of a movement. It was just a group of really cool people that actually cared, I suppose is the best way to put it," said Payne.

"It just happened to be that a lot of people involved were new migrants to New Zealand because I suppose they wanted to feel part of something and give back."

Going national

In Thorndon, they ended up with 50 odd teams from kids through to adults, which made Wellington City Council take notice.

It also caught the attention of New Zealand Football; they contacted Payne in 2009.

"They said 'can you tell us what you've done down in Wellington?' So I went up and they asked if I could put a plan together for the country and then they hired me."

Payne quit his day job to become the first full-time futsal development manager for the country.

"So we basically took the model of what we did in Wellington and then worked out how it could work in all the other regions and went from there."

One of the first guys Payne hired was his neighbour Matt Fejos, who by now had fallen in love with the sport.

"I would recruit a whole lot of Matts and Lucases and Khalids across the country [as full-time regional development officers]. My view was anyone who volunteered and gave their own time meant they were a good person and that's a good starting point. Because if they love it, it's actually a lifestyle choice and you're going to get something quite special."

A permanent home

Thanks to some fierce lobbying from Payne and co - futsal became the fourth cornerstone sport to be based at Wellington City Council's planned sports centre in Kilbirnie.

So excited by the prospect - Razouk and others had a look during construction.

"We came here a few times while they were building it, we took a few photos. We came and had a look inside and they made us put helmets on," said Razouk.

Futsal started going gangbusters when the ASB Centre opened in 2011, with it able to be played every day of the week.

Razouk surveys the indoor stadium today where there are social leagues for men, women, girls, and boys.

"Look at this like it's so beautiful. So much space."

Just after the ASB opened Payne moved to Auckland because he was spending so much time at head office and was overseeing seven development officers around the county.

Futsal is one of the most popular sports at Wellington's ASB centre.

Futsal is one of the most popular sports at Wellington's ASB centre. Photo: RNZ / Bridget Tunnicliffe

Influencers

Razouk, now 31, is a full-time barber but he also coaches many of the young kids coming through the age groups in Wellington.

"A couple of years ago I decided to start my own futsal academy. Just to give back to the kids, the community and share what I've learned over the past 10 years or so."

Razouk said playing futsal without doubt made someone a better footballer.

"And it's just fun, the kids get to touch the ball way more often than with football. You can express your style with flair, it just gives you more freedom I guess."

Mohsen Maddah moved to Wellington in 2010 from Iran with his family when he was 15 years old.

He used to play futsal on the streets.

After finding a club, he then got selected to the Capital futsal team, where Silva and Razouk play.

Maddah, who went to Brazil last year to train with professional teams, coaches age group levels and helps at Razouk's futsal academy.

"After every year, I could see the number growing especially with the youth age groups. I mean, now we don't have enough courts," said Maddah.

Most of the youth coming through Wellington now will at some point have contact with the likes of Silva, Razouk, and Maddah.

The next generation

Over the last six years futsal has been the fastest growing sport in New Zealand secondary schools.

In 2010 there were just over 1000 playing at high school, last year there were over 7000. Samantha Whyte has been playing futsal for about four years and plans to keep going "until her knees crap out."

She started playing football when she was five and got interested in the five-aside game when she watched the Futsal Whites at the ASB with her Dad when she was 11.

The 15-year-old plays for a Capital Futsal age group team, and at an academy where she's been heavily influenced by coaches from Brazil and Japan.

Rongotai College student Matthew Peden has been playing for five years.

The 16-year-old still plays football but his preference is futsal "100 percent".

"It's fast, it's intense, very fun, a good workout."

Between playing for his school, academy, and social leagues, he plays futsal six out of seven days a week.

Silva went to the recent youth nationals in Wellington and liked what he saw.

"Those age groups coming through, when they come to my age, they're going to be a really good because they've had proper coaching and stuff."

A community

Maddah said most of his friends were from futsal.

"Because we see with each other almost every day sometimes, and then we go to the tournaments together so we are really close to each other.

"We've had one off World Cup competition. So people from different countries, they made a team and they played against each other."

Futsal has been described as a sport "with no borders."

Last year New Zealand Football joined forces with the Ashburton District Council and Immigration New Zealand, to deliver a futsal tournament and festival.

Why? Because the Canterbury town has become a refugee destination and this year became the country's sixth new refugee settlement location.

When 33-year-old Atta Elayyan, who played 19 internationals for the Futsal Whites, was killed during the Christchurch mosque attacks in March, it had a big impact on the futsal community.

Payne, Silva, Maddah, and Razouk knew him well.

"Pretty much every year we saw him at least like five or six times a year when we travelled to tournaments. The whole futsal community became a family - he was like a brother to us," said Razouk.

"You could see everybody, really like support each other through the tough times. And that like, makes me really proud of being part of it," said Silva.

No caption

Lucas Silva, Mohsen Maddah, and Khalid Razouk on the top level of the ASB Centre in Wellington. Photo: RNZ / DOM THOMAS

No one bigger than the game

Razouk still finds it hard to comprehend how much futsal has taken off.

"Unbelievable. Honestly, I still look back. It's come so far. Back then there was nothing for kids. Now, you can start playing futsal when you're five."

Silva, who has gone on to be one of the most experienced players in the Futsal Whites for his adopted country, said it had been cool seeing the sport become more mainstream.

"Before when I would say futsal, not many people actually knew what that meant. Nowadays, I go to work and the colleagues are like, 'my son plays futsal, my daughter plays futsal'. And some of my colleagues play social futsal. It's pretty amazing."

That knock on Dave Payne's door in 2007 led Matt Fejos down a whole new path. He now travels the world coaching and learning more about futsal.

Payne left New Zealand Football in January this year, by which time he had become Chief Operating Officer.

He said it was something he would always look back on with a smile.

"There's 30,000 people playing now. That's just the players - we've managed to create this sort of community that's kept on going and it's very different to other sports. You look at the football community as a whole, and that to be honest is why I left New Zealand football. There's a lot of people in football with big egos, it's very much about getting to the top."

Payne said from the start they quite ruthlessly made sure as the sport grew that no one was bigger than the game.

"If you look at the Futsal Whites and Futsal Ferns, they all coach kids' teams, they all referee. We fostered that at the start. You make sure you give back because that's why futsal's got to where it's got to. And that's essentially why it succeeded."