At first, it is easy to write the Red Bull Neymar Jr’s Five — a 5v5 international futsal tournament — off as just a quickfire sports competition which rides on the fame of the Brazilian superstar. While football banks on the passion of fans and players, it also operates with a ruthless business model, which makes it forgivable if one doesn’t take an academy or tournament seriously simply because it is associated with a top club or player’s name. It is difficult to know whether Red Bull Neymar Jr’s Five was intended to be just that at first — because in about half a decade, it has grown into a mammoth tournament played across 62 countries with over 125,000 participants worldwide. And, astonishingly enough, India supplies record numbers to this event.
The event came to India hot on the heels of astro turfs and 5-a-side natural grass pitches springing up in the country. And while the first year (2016) saw just 500 teams participate, 2019 saw India create more than 3,000 teams and bag the ultimate prize of sending the national champions to Brazil for the world finals in Praia Grande, which houses Neymar’s football institute. In 2018, India were only behind Neymar’s own country Brazil in the number of participants. And this is just one tournament; on an average — and just in Mumbai alone — a futsal tournament takes place almost every weekend. While all this points to the fact that futsal, or versions of it like the Kerala Sevens, remain remarkably popular in India, it also shows that there is huge scope for a national futsal league which will eventually lead to an Indian Futsal team.
“Everyone in Mumbai at least is waiting for this opportunity, where there is a streamlined process that could lead to a national championship. I do remember being called up for trials which were supposed to be for a 5-a-side Maharashtra team but some issues came up and didn’t materialise,” says Anthony Machado, who is part of the Kalina Rangers team that won this year’s Neymar Jr’s Five and will travel to Brazil for the world finals from July 11-13. Machado has been actively playing local 5v5 and 6v6 football since he was 15 — now, at 29, he is a fitness and running coach and continues to play and train futsal teams. Kalina Rangers has been actively participating in the futsal circuit for six years.
The closest India has come to having a futsal tournament that could catch the eye of the fan was Premier Futsal — now defunct after having run into administrative troubles. Despite having brought in star names like Ronaldinho and Ryan Giggs, it never had the AIFF recognition that it needed in order to be considered as a national futsal league. The challenges to pull this off are greater than meet the eye — India needs futsal coaches, futsal courts, and State associations that really care about supporting the idea.
“Just like Twenty20 has helped cricket being taken to so many demographics, futsal can do the same. It can be played in the rainy season as well. Churches, assembly halls, and wedding halls can become futsal surfaces. Yes, a correlation exists between having a futsal league and the popularity of the sport as a whole, but it could be just another distraction at this point of football development in India,” said Pradhyum Reddy, the former technical director of Indian Super League side FC Pune City.
Reddy also believes that there is a proper pathway from gully cricket to clubs and Indian Premier League (IPL) teams, which could eventually lead to playing for the country — and a futsal league could do the same, but that mission has its own challenges.
“You can always argue that just like futsal’s greatest player Falcao, most may not make it to the 11-a-side game. But even if they do, one has to ask whether those who play just futsal over weekends would give up that flexibility and commit to an 11-a-side career which is far more gruelling and competitive,” he said, adding: “At the same time, the more football that is played in the country, the better. Whether that is futsal or sevens or 11-a-side.”
Even though players of teams who’ve been to Brazil say physical strength is the major difference between Indian and foreign teams, the format suits Indian players, who are nimble, agile, and enjoy dribbling in small spaces. “We can match them in the gameplay, but sometimes they overawe us with strength,” said Rayyan Shaikh, who will finally compete in Brazil after getting lucky the third time. Kalina Rangers lost two finals in a row before winning this year’s the Red Bull Neymar Jr’s Five, beating Aizawl’s Underdogs FC.
For Kalina Rangers, the challenge is more immediate. “We don’t know about which scouts have or will see us or not, but it would be nice to be noticed. If we are scouted that’s great, but we can’t [dwell on that] while playing our tournaments, because it is something that may not happen and we have to focus on winning in the moment,” Rayyan added.
The 22-year-old had to drop out of his engineering degree due to some financial woes. For him, futsal is not just a way to win, but also to earn a living. There are many like him, and until India has a better way of providing a platform for them to showcase their talent, it is worth following their journey in Brazil.
The games are 10 minutes long, with five players on each side. But when a team scores, the opponents lose a player. The team with more remaining players on the pitch wins. In case of a draw, the teams will send their best player to face off in a 1 v 1 golden goal. The prize for winning the tournament is a match against Neymar and his friends, with a trip to Paris to watch him play for PSG.
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