New Zealand have never qualified for a FIFA Futsal World Cup, but work has been going on to change this for several years. A meticulous plan is in place to achieve this goal and, more importantly, to turn futsal into a mainstream sport in the country.
Marvin Eakins is perhaps the best example of this movement.
An international since 2008 and the national team captain since 2010, Eakins is more than just a talismanic presence on the court for the All Whites, who are gearing up to begin their challenge at the OFC Futsal Championship in Fiji on 8 February, where a solitary ticket to Colombia 2016 is up for grabs.
At just 29, the pivot has taken on an active role in developing the sport in his homeland, as shown by his involvement in the Futsal Coaching Course staged by FIFA in conjunction with New Zealand Football (NZF) in Auckland from 6 to 10 December 2015.
"Us national team players have a real chance to help young players to grow," Eakins told FIFA.com. "Kids around these parts have futsal heroes these days. Anything we can give back to them from that position can only be positive," added the iconic skipper, who, as well as playing, holds the posts of Futsal Development Officer and youth coach at the Auckland Football Federation.
The above-mentioned course was designed to equip futsal coaches to lead the NZF's Level 2 Coaching Award scheme and was one of the main events among two weeks of activities that also included a series of three friendlies against Fiji, all of which the Kiwis won.
"In countries like New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, it's vital that players get involved in this way," Scott Gilligan, the FIFA instructor in charge of the course and the Futsal Whites coach since 2012, explained to FIFA.com.
"They, more than anyone, know the technique required to play futsal and how to apply it tactically," added the 54-year-old Australian, who taught similar courses in 2012 and 2013. "Every player taking on board more concepts and returning to their region with this knowledge is crucial in order to popularise the sport and increase the player pool for the future."
FIFA's first input into New Zealand's futsal scene came through the 'Win in Oceania with Oceania' campaign, which ran in 2009 and 2010. Since then, the number of players taking part in the country's leagues, programmes and festivals has grown exponentially, jumping from 5,050 in 2011 to 57,648 in 2015.
"Our work has been based on developing futsal across the board," revealed Dave Payne, the Futsal Development Manager at NZF. "We work with kids, youths and older people, both male and female; we've introduced it at schools and universities, but we've also targeted training referees and administrators. As a result, we have players reaching the national team today who have picked up the fundamentals of the sport at the grassroots level."
From foundations to domination?
This crop of up-and-coming players steeped in the game is a key factor in the eyes of Eakins, who only started playing futsal at the age of 20: "We've already got players who are five times better than me for that reason: they've been playing for almost a lifetime. With experienced coaches, they can only improve. They will be the bedrock for New Zealand to dominate futsal in the region for many years."
When asked what role Colombia 2016 qualifying results would have on the development of futsal in New Zealand, Easkins responded: "A critical one," without a moment's hesitation. He continued: "International success would provide huge exposure here and act as inspiration to young people."
Irrespective of whether or not the Kiwis qualify for this year's global showpiece, though, Payne already has his sights on the next one in 2020: "By that time we will have specialists who, at the age of 18, will already have 10 years of experience. That makes us very optimistic." Gilligan agrees. He said: "I have no doubt that, if the federation continues its support, New Zealand will be in a position to qualify for every World Cup from 2020 on."
Eakins is equally bullish about the here and now: "We're better prepared than any other team in New Zealand's history and we're confident of qualifying. We feel that we're the best side in Oceania, we just have to show it out on the pitch. We will make history by qualifying for Colombia 2016 and this will be the start of a legacy that will make those who follow us proud."