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I was recently in Bangkok, Thailand for the World Intercontinental Futsal Cup after being invited by Club Atlético Los Angeles from Equatorial Guinea. It was a fantastic event with attendances of over 9,000 and some of the world’s best clubs and players on show.
It was no surprise to see it held in Asia as it has become a leading region for futsal. The AFC was the first confederation to organise a women’s, and male youth, continental championships and the sport continues to gain popularity across the continent. At the last World Cup we had the first Asian nation to finish in the Top 3 after Iran claimed bronze.
To find out more on what is happening with futsal in the world’s most populous continent, I took the opportunity to speak with three key people from different areas of expertise in the sport´s development in the region.
I first interviewed Adisak Benjasiriwan who has roles in the Thailand FA as well as The AFC and gave some fascinating insights into how the game has developed so rapidly in the South East Asian country. After that I spoke with legendary coach Hossein Shams who spoke about the huge numbers playing futsal in his country of birth Iran and what is currently holding his homeland back from being No.1 in the world. Finally, I had a conversation with Abolfazl Khodabandehloo, a highly experienced futsal event organiser with ambitious plans to develop the sport in the future. The three interviews are below.
*These interviews were previously published on FutsalPlanet.com
Key Figure Behind Futsal in Thailand Discusses Its Past & Future Development
Inside the stunning Bangkok Arena, built for the 2012 FIFA Futsal World Cup, 9,000 cheering fans are enjoying the World Intercontinental Futsal Cup, a tournament described by the Head of Events & Competitions at FIFA as “very important for the future of futsal worldwide”.
Thailand has become a home for international futsal events and in the last 3 years alone it has hosted the AFC Futsal Championships, AFC Women’s Futsal Championships, the first ever AFC U20 Futsal Championships, ASEAN Futsal Championships twice and the ASEAN Club Futsal Championships twice. It is quite a portfolio of major futsal tournaments that gives the impression the sport has a long history in the country.
However, that is not the case. Incredibly, it was less than 20 years ago that Thailand first hosted an international futsal tournament and first qualified for a FIFA Futsal World Cup, but since then the sport has developed rapidly. They have now qualified for five consecutive World Cups and reached the knockout stages at the last two. How does a country go from being unknown on the world stage to one of the hotbeds of futsal worldwide in such a short timescale?
Without doubt, a lot of this success can be attributed to just a single person, Adisak Benjasiriwan. He is the current Chairman of the Futsal & Beach Soccer Committee at the Thailand Football Association as well as a member of The AFC’s equivalent body. He first got involved in developing the sport almost 20 years ago and since then he has held several roles including acting as the team manager of his country’s national team and being behind the successful bid to host the 2012 FIFA Futsal World Cup.
One of his first involvements in developing the sport was founding and building club side Chonburi Bluewave where he was president until a few years ago when the position was passed to his son. They have dominated domestically and the two-time Asian club champions have provided the backbone of the national team, being pivotal in their upward trajectory. The former University of Dallas student hasn’t just focused on developing the elite game and one of his initiatives helped get public futsal courts built in urban areas so more people can enjoy this game he loves.
In just under two decades he has been the driving force behind futsal becoming one of Thailand’s most popular sports where it fits well in the hot and humid climate that has a long rainy season. However, he is not satisfied to stop there and has ambitions further afield. He previously said he wants Thailand, runners-up in Asia on two occasions, to become the number one team in the continent where Iran and Japan have dominated. In this exclusive interview Benjasiriwan tells us about the sport in his homeland, how it developed and where he sees it in the future.
Doug Reed: How popular is futsal in Thailand?
Adisak Benjasiriwan: Futsal in Thailand is one of the top five most popular sports in the country. It is a professional sport amongst 13 sports in Thailand and there are more than 100,000 people involved in the game.
For our domestic competition, we have the AIS Futsal League as the top tier of the pyramid, followed by Division 1, Women’s, University League, Thailand National Games for university students and National Secondary School League.
The league competition has an average attendance of 1,200-1,500 spectators restricted by the capacity of our facilities. Nevertheless, for the ASEAN and Asian Championship we can expect 8,000-12,000 attendances in the Bangkok Arena for National Team games or AFC Futsal Club Championships. Regarding the TV audience, we are only behind the Men’s Football National Team and Women’s Volleyball National Team which means that the TV ratings for Futsal National Team games is relatively high and has been as high as over 5 million viewers.
At the grassroots level, kids are growing up playing futsal more than playing football due to the fact that we have more than 1,000 futsal courts in the country in over 70 provinces and nowadays more than a quarter of schools all over Thailand substitute futsal for football due to limited space for football.
DR: How were you able to grow the game in Thailand so quickly?
AB: We started developing futsal in Thailand almost 20 years ago. In the first year we didn’t have any futsal players so we brought footballers to play futsal and after our first World Cup tournament, we decided to organize a futsal selection for our National Teams’ players to play only Futsal. One of the most important decisions we ever made was to start the league in 2006 and since then we always have had the system to enhance our human resource development.
The league competition has been growing step by step and gaining more and more popularity. During the past 10 years, we have also organized AFF and AFC competitions regularly both for club and national team tournaments as well as the FIFA Futsal World Cup in 2012. Therefore, people including the young generations have become familiar with futsal. In addition, our national team has successfully qualified for the FIFA Futsal World Cup five consecutive times since 2000 and inspires the young generations to have a career path in futsal and possess the dream to play for national team.
DR: You have supported futsal and helped grow the game in Thailand for many years. Why are you so passionate about this sport and its development in the country?
AB: This is a fascinating sport and I believe that the characteristics of the Thai people also fit the rhythm of the game. This is one of the reasons why I supported futsal and helped grow the game.
The first time we qualified to the World Cup in 2000, it was a spark in my life and I told myself that I needed to grow this sport and follow my dream to make this game successful in Thailand. We have been in the top 3 in Asia in the majority of competitions. I wanted to see the success that futsal brings to the Thai people as they can make a career out of the game and I wanted to see the happiness that futsal brings to the fans as this sport has done for me.
DR: In 2012 you brought the FIFA Futsal World Cup to Thailand. What impact did the event have?
AB: We made a very good and compelling bid book in 2011 but unfortunately, after we were selected as the host nation from FIFA, I was not involved during the tournament but it gave us a legacy and put Thailand on the map in the world of futsal.
Thai people had the opportunity to experience and feel the energy of the game from as close as they could imagine. This inspired the children and people who had never heard of futsal before. This brought interest to the country and what we also got from the World Cup is one of the best stadiums in the world. We built the Bangkok Arena which is now a symbol and legacy from the World Cup.
DR: Hosting the penultimate World Cup and the World Intercontinental Futsal Cup has cemented Thailand as one of the leading countries for futsal in the world. Where do you see the sport in the future here?
AB: After working for futsal for so long, I am very proud to be able to organize, and be trusted to organize, the world’s best two championships. I believe that Thailand is currently considered as an international futsal hub for the world. Anyway, we must still develop and make this family grow in terms of human resources, competitions, marketing and our national teams to really achieve the professional and international standards. We believe that if we do our best, the benefits will fall into the arms of the Thai futsal community, therefore we have so many things to be planned and done ahead for the future generations. This plan would be beneficial to the management team of futsal in Thailand, whoever is able to make the decision, and it would be the best for futsal.
Shams: Iran can be No.1 in 2020 with the right funding but we need a specialist futsal federation
Hossein Shams is one of the most respected voices in the coaching world and as such was the perfect candidate to lead the World Intercontinental Futsal Cup’s first ever Technical Study Group (TSG) in Bangkok. The role of a TSG is to highlight the latest game trends and support its development through analysing matches and training sessions at tournaments. I spoke to the Iranian coach to get his thoughts on the championships and the sport more widely.
”The tournament has been a very high level. I was particularly impressed by Leandro Lino from Magnus who has come as a surprise. A very, very good player in both attack and defence as well as 1v1 situations. I also like Ferrao who is fantastic.” Observed Shams before mentioning how he hopes there will be room for more top teams to participate in the future.
Asked on his thoughts on the role of 1v1 skills in the modern game, he has noticed its reduced presence. “I think previously players were more about technique and skills. In Iran and Brazil we had so many of these players. I think now there is an emphasis on tactics and fitness and less on technique. Those two have improved more than the technical aspects.”
Having coached for nearly three decades, almost from the birth of the sport under FIFA’s auspices, he has witnessed the rising level among all teams during his career. “When I started in futsal it was just Spain and Brazil. No-one knew about the tactics of defence, attack or set plays. Now all the teams have improved and have this knowledge. In the first AFC Championship Iran defeated Singapore 36-0. 36-0! Today that’s impossible. Maybe 4 or 5 nil but nothing more.”
Exploring the reasons behind this evolution he focused on the increased professionalism. “Now there is more training. Previously we trained 3 times a week in Iran. Then it went to 5 or 6. Now every teams trains morning and afternoon. I think this is the difference between when I started and now.”
His distinguished coaching CV includes working for many of Iran’s best clubs as well as the Bahrain and Kuwait National Teams. In 2007 he would take the helm at his own nation and, shortly after, at the 2008 FIFA Futsal World Cup they were the surprise package and announced themselves as one of the world’s strongest nations. It helped earn Shams the title of the father of modern Iranian futsal back home.
Despite dominating in Asia, before then Iran weren’t considered among the elite as they are today. They had a poor record at the World Cup before 2008 with the exception of the 1992 edition, in an era when professionalism hadn’t yet took hold and the elite game was still in its infancy. In that second ever FIFA Futsal World Cup USA finished runners-up with a squad of indoor soccer players, highlighting a different era when players and teams weren’t highly trained futsal specialists.
In the 2008 edition they immediately demonstrated their quality, leading Spain 3-0 at half time in their first game before the defending champions managed to salvage a draw. In the second round they lost narrowly 1-0 to the eventual champions Brazil before conceding a last-minute goal against Italy to make it 5-5 and leave them a single goal short of the semi-finals.
That team was led on the field by the legendary all-time goalscorer in futsal history, Vahid Shamsaee, as well as other world class players such as Keshavrz, Taheri, goalkeeper Nazari and Hassanzadeh who captains the team currently. Now Iran are a well-established world powerhouse, finishing third at the last World Cup, with stars such as Tayyebi, Javid and Tavakoli capable of playing in any team in the world. However, they don’t currently feature in the top leagues as they can earn much more in places like China and Kazakhstan where many have left home for since the crisis in the Iranian economy.
The question arises how Iran has established itself as such a strong nation and the answer is simple. “Do you know that 16 million people play futsal in Iran?” asks Shams. ”I think that’s the highest in the world. So much talent. 8 million play just futsal in schools alone with specialist coaches and schools futsal is crucial in developing futsal. It is very easy to find 14 players from 16 million for the national team.” concluded the current Giti Pasand Head Coach.
At the last World Cup a narrow 4-3 defeat to Russia prevent
ed them from earning a place in the final. Could they lift the trophy in 2020? “If the futsal committee of Iran has the budget for futsal and support from the football federation we can become No.1 in 2020. I think we have a very good chance to become world champions. There is so much talent in Iran. The problem is there is no money.”
He doesn’t believe, in Iran at least, that the necessary funding will come under the current structures. “In Iran if you have 16 million people playing you must have a bigger budget. I think whilst under the control of the football federation it will never change. We must leave the football federation and have a federation specifically for futsal. In Iran this is required but maybe in other countries it isn’t the case. If you have 16 million people, you must have a specialist federation.”
He went on to highlight the importance of funding to develop futsal wherever you are and provided the contrast between how football coaches are paid millions by the federations whilst their futsal equivalents receive relatively little. “In every country a budget for futsal will develop the game. Without a budget it won’t.” was this 5-time champion of Asia’s frank conclusion.
With such a sharp futsal mind and a wealth of knowledge from the last 30 years in the sport we couldn’t leave without finding out his all-time Iranian and World Best V. For Iran he selected four from that historic 2008 World Cup squad with the spots being given to Shamsaei, Masoumi, Keshavarz, Hassanzadeh and Nazari in goal. For the world selection he chose two players who were crowned champions in Thailand in Falcao and goalkeeper Thiago plus their compatriot Manoel Tobias, Spaniard Kike and, of course, there was room for the Iranian icon Shamsaei.
A Key Figure Behind The World Intercontinental Futsal Cup With An Ambition To Grow The Game
The recent World Intercontinental Futsal Cup in Thailand has been deemed a huge success after the high level of play from the world’s best clubs generated significant interest from fans, television broadcasters and sponsors. Most importantly, it promoted a positive image for a game which is still fighting for its space in the global sporting landscape.
One of the key figures behind its success was Abolfazl Khodabandehloo who was the deputy executive of the event and has big plans for its future. The goal is to grow futsal and make it the second most important futsal event worldwide behind the FIFA Futsal World Cup. He confidently declared “This tournament is going to grow bigger and bigger….It is going to be one of the major futsal tournaments in the world.”
This comes with some authority as Iranian Khodabandehloo is an executive with extensive experience in the area. He has been organizing events for the AFC for many years as well as being involved in the management of major sports competitions such as The Olympics and Asian Games.
The World Intercontinental Futsal Cup brings together the top clubs from across the planet to compete for the title of World Champions. It has a history going back to the late 1990s but has not always been given the attention or treatment it deserves as the premium global club competition.
However, that is all set to change with Khodabandehloo and the company he is Vice President of. Futsal and Beach Soccer International organised this year’s edition and have a wealth of sports industry experience among their ranks. The old cliché “location, location, location” is just as applicable to sport events and 2012 World Cup host Thailand, which will host the competition for the following two years, is seen as a key factor in their strategy of fulfilling the championships potential.
“I believe Thailand, on the base of its infrastructure and management, are one of the most developed futsal countries in Asia and the world. They have proven that by having hosted lots of big events in the country” commented Khodabandehloo. “For bigger matches, over 12,000 people are attending.”
The interest in the sport is certainly growing in the country both from the government, who supported the event, and the fans who came to the games in their thousands to gain a glimpse of the world’s best futsal players. They weren’t disappointed with legends that have been the stars of their generation such as Falcao and Foglia on show as well as those that will surely achieve the same stature in the future, such as tournament top goalscorer Leandro Lino and his teammate Marcel.
Looking wider afield, Asia has become a leader in the development of the sport. “Compared to other continents, Asia is moving faster and giving more attention to futsal.” Back in 2015, The AFC was the first confederation to hold a continental futsal championship for women’s national teams which is a bi-annual event. Its example has been followed by Europe’s UEFA who will debut their equivalent in 2019.
Khodabandehloo was keen to stress the importance of developing the women’s game. “Women are half the population. They have a say in every aspect in society, in Asia many women are in top management positions and we should treat everyone the same. Women must be given confidence. Women’s futsal is very, very important not only the men’s game. Futsal is a sport for everybody.”
So what are the keys to building a sports event? “In order to make a tournament successful the participating futsal clubs are very important, but the management of the event is also playing a very big role, the people who work behind the scenes. If they are not professional the tournament can fail even if you have all the top teams.”
And this is what his company Futsal and Beach Soccer International aims to provide. They offer services that cover every aspect of organising futsal events from finding sponsors, securing the participation of the world’s biggest teams and advising on legal matters. They have already organised many qualifying tournaments for futsal and beach soccer for The AFC and FIFA in addition to these championships.
Global futsal participation is significant and has been growing but this hasn’t been reflected in the interest in the elite game. Building the World Intercontinental Futsal Cup, as well as mentioning the possibility of another huge futsal event in the near future that he is keeping tight lipped about, is all part of Khodabandehloo aim of introducing the sport he adores to the world.
To finish our interview, considering he was a former professional football player and has been Head Coach and Technical Director of the Thailand Beach Soccer team, I asked why he has such a strong desire to grow futsal. Without any hesitation, he rapidly reels off the reasons behind his love for the game.
“Futsal is totally different from football. Futsal is the base of football. Number one is the speed of the game. Number two is the entertainment value for spectators. Number three is its indoor so you can play in all weather conditions. Number four is the atmosphere the fans create. 6000 in an indoor arena is like 100,000 in an outdoor stadium.” He replies enthusiastically before continuing.
“Number five is the players have to be fitter than in football. You cannot stop in futsal. Number six is the tactics involved. It is a mixture of football, basketball, handball, all team ball sports. For me, in futsal the winner is the team that makes the fewest mistakes. Futsal is like playing chess. For top teams, technique is very important, but tactics are the major factor. In football it is power.”
With his experience, knowledge and passion for organising futsal events and the sport itself it would be a brave person who doubts Abolfazl Khodabandehloo will achieve his ambitions.