Football in Australia has made a massive leap in the past decade across most areas of the game from the grassroots to the senior national teams. Futsal, however, while relatively popular across the suburbs of the nation’s major urban centres, remains somewhat low-key. But while the game may lack money or profile, the game’s chief advocates - led by the national team players themselves - are as passionate as anyone in advancing the cause.
Australia head to the FIFA Futsal World Cup Colombia 2016 with a very clear aim – qualify for the knockout stage. The Futsalroos will be competing in their seventh World Cup, and so far they have yet to advance beyond the group stage. If they do so at Colombia 2016, the hope is that there will be a positive spin-off for the game Down Under.
“We have a lot kids that play futsal, but in their mid-teens they make a choice between futsal and football,” Australia captain Greg Giovenali told FIFA.com. “Young players don’t see it as a genuine career path. Most young players see it as development for their football, but it would be nice to offer enticement for those players to stay in the game long enough to help the national team.”
History in the offing
Sixteen teams will be seeking to advance to the knockout stage from the 24-nation field when the tournament kicks-off on 10 September. Australia face a significant challenge if they are to achieve their stated aim, after being grouped alongside global powerhouse Brazil, European contenders Ukraine and debutants Mozambique.
“It would be a massive achievement if we got out of the group, and would be history-making for the team and the nation,” said Giovenali, who will have the opportunity to meet up with current Brazil coach and former Lazio team-mate Serginho in Colombia. “All the boys have set their sights on being the team which makes history, so that is our ultimate aim.
You get that reward when you’re standing there singing the national anthem before an international, and it makes it [sacrifices] all worthwhile. Even just thinking about it, I get goosebumps.
“It’s not every day you have the opportunity to play against Brazil, who are the best team in the world, and it will be a real eye-opener, but also a great opportunity. We don’t know much about Mozambique, but the reality is no team qualifies for the World Cup without having quality. Ukraine are ranked eighth in the world, and are very physical, very well organised and structured.
“We want to prove we can match it with our limited resources, and that has always been one of the team’s motivators. If we did qualify it might show how much we could achieve if we had a more professional environment or league, so doing well at the World Cup might be the first step to push the sport forward.”
The hard way
Giovenali knows a thing or two about what it takes to succeed at the elite level. Giovenali returned to the birthplace of his grandparents where he played in Italy’s highly-regarded league over seven seasons at Lazio. He is one of the few Aussies to have played alongside the game’s best and brightest at domestic level, with Futsalroos’ team-mate Toby Seeto – who enjoyed several seasons in Span - another exception to the rule.
Australia are one of a shrinking number of non-professional teams at World Cup level. And while Giovenali’s Lazio days are in the past, he still manages to carve out a humble existence in the game he loves. The Sydneysider spends his working day coaching futsal at schools, a role he has done on and off over the past ten years.
Giovenali and his team-mates live a very different life from some of their World Cup rivals. For starters, most of the Aussie team play both outdoor football and futsal which, combined with earning a living, makes for a hectic lifestyle. Giovenali trains four nights a week across both strands of the game, and plays at least two matches a week.
“It is a very challenging balancing act,” said Giovenali, while enroute to his next coaching appointment. “You don’t get much of a life really, especially preparing for a campaign such as this. By the time you get home on weekends you are tired and don’t feel like doing much else.
“At some point it comes down to either missing out on representing your nation, or missing something like a friend’s party. You always have those [down] moments where you are missing out on something. It is hard but sometimes you have to make the sacrifices. You get that reward when you’re standing there singing the national anthem before an international, and it makes it all worthwhile. Even just thinking about it, I get goosebumps."