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The hybrid sport sweeping South America is a perfect antidote for the U.S.’s athletic woes.

In 21st-century America, football and basketball define much of the youth sports system. Given the predominant success of the NFL, there is little wonder as to why so many high school, and younger, students are attracted to the gridiron. Yet, as studies have shown, playing in such a high-contact sport can be detrimental to kids’ health. In fact, the harsh reality of playing football is that the players are exposed to much higher rates of debilitating injuries or death.

According to a study by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, over 40 football players at various levels of difficulty died between 2015 and 2017. High school football players accounted for 30 of these deaths.

In a world where high school football players are twice as likely to be concussed as their NFL counterparts and young basketball players frequently do irreparable damage to their knee ligaments, many have begun wondering if there is a safer, yet still competitive, alternative. There is: futsal.

Fundamentally, futsal is a form of soccer that is played indoors on a court roughly the same size as a basketball court. Each side is composed of four field players and one goalkeeper. Unlike regular soccer, unlimited substitutions are allowed, and a smaller, size 4 ball is used. The United States Futsal Federation (USFF) elaborates that the smaller playing field and ball “create an emphasis on improvisation, creativity, and technique as well as ball control and passing in small spaces.”

The organization of the court differs from that of a soccer field; for instance, the goalkeeper’s box resembles a squashed basketball 3-point line. Outside of the more nuanced goalkeeper play and the prohibition of slide tackling, many of the same rules of soccer carry over. Futsal should not be confused with indoor soccer, which has walls that help keep the ball inbounds. You can find a more complete list of how futsal differs from its outdoor or indoor counterparts here.

Futsal was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, in the year 1930. It quickly gained popularity across South America, and countries such as Brazil began to place a heavy emphasis on the sport as a preparatory program for soccer, as the small field of play helped develop control of the ball. Today, Brazil stands as the futsal capital of the world, and the skills born on the futsal court are evident in their unique style of play on the soccer pitch. It is no surprise, then, that Brazil has five FIFA World Cup wins, more than any other nation.

The benefits of playing a soccer-like sport for kids are undeniable. Children can especially benefit from playing futsal, as it widely encourages the ABCS principles (agility, balance, coordination and speed) that positively impact the development of their central nervous systems. Moreover, it encourages an active lifestyle and strong teamwork. The unlimited substitutions the game offers also allow all team members to receive playing time, and some futsal leagues even mandate equal time for every participant.

But for teenage athletes, the allures of futsal shift. While it is not considered a high-contact sport, the competitiveness of the game is unmatched. A detailed time-motion analysis of futsal found that it is a more intense sport than soccer or basketball, as it requires players to sprint at maximum capacity with great frequency. Quick decision making is an asset all successful futsal players learn, as the rapid pace of play often overwhelms individuals who struggle with anticipatory awareness.

Futsal’s fun atmosphere is also a great calorie burner. While it isn’t an exact science, some postulate that playing a single 40-minute game of futsal burns around 500 calories. With less than 3 percent of Americans living a healthy lifestyle, futsal might appeal to those looking to implement HIIT (high intensity interval training) into their exercise routines. It also doesn’t hurt that the fast pace of play is often easier to enjoy for Americans unused to the battles of attrition many soccer matches become.

As a whole, America could benefit from focusing on futsal. Most recently, fans of the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) were stung by the USMNT’s failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. While America has the resources and facilities to support a top-notch soccer development program, the overall lower level of competition at the club and school levels puts the USMNT at a considerable disadvantage on a global scale.

More impoverished countries — Brazil being at the forefront of the discussion — have been able to do a lot more with a lot less. If America followed the Brazilian blueprint of success by placing heavy emphasis on Futsal as a prerequisite to taking the outdoor pitch, the USMNT might qualify for the FIFA World Cup more consistently.

Sadly, a significant amount of work would need to be done to reinvent the American soccer identity through futsal. As it currently stands, there are no regulated high school or collegiate teams that are able to play as one academic institution versus another. Though there are various club leagues scattered around the country, unless futsal is implemented in schools, it will be next to impossible for the sport to take an influential hold on the country.

However, adding futsal programs could be easier than a variety of other sports, as most basketball gyms can be repurposed to house futsal teams. Exchanging between futsal and basketball would be as easy as moving the goals and raising the hoops.


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