Were Danish playmaker Christian Eriksen, USA captain Michael Bradley and Algerian superstar Riyad Mahrez lining up at the FIFA Futsal World Cup in Colombia this week, it’s fair to say it would turn a few heads. While that may sound like a scenario right out of left field, the thing is, back in 1989 at the first edition of the tournament, the late-80s counterparts to these modern day stars did just that.
Stepping out 27 years ago, it was Brian Laudrup – one of the finest players ever to emerge from Denmark, Michael Windischmann – who would soon be captaining the Stars and Stripes at their first FIFA World Cup™ in 50 years, and Lakhdar Belloumi – arguably the greatest ever to pull on the Algeria shirt, taking to the court.
You could even expand the analogy further. Four other players took part in the Netherlands who had, or would go on to, grace an 11-a-side World Cup – namely Canada’s Paul Dolan and Tab Ramos, Peter Vermes and Steve Trittschuh of USA.
“It was great fun, because you got to watch a lot of technical play, great ability and different countries,” Laudrup, who scored four times in three games while there, reflected. “[We Danes] are not famous for [being technical]. We’ve always been seen as physical players, tactically very sound, but after that we got to see that Danish players were technically gifted as well – or at least some of us!”
It was the first time FIFA had strayed away from the comfort of grass for a tournament – predating the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup by 16 years – and also saw a FIFA tournament return to the Netherlands for the first time in over 60 years – having not been present since the Amsterdam Olympic Games in 1928. In fact, with the Dutch FA (KNVB) turning 100 that year, then-Vice-President Martern Kastermans summed it up well: “It was a double party.”
Futsal was greatly popular in the European lowlands at the time, so the hosts were a natural choice, with neighbours Belgium joining them as one of the pre-tournament favourites, alongside Brazil. It maybe then came as little shock that they filled three of the semi-final spots come the final weekend. The fourth was maybe a bit more of a surprise, coming in the shape of USA. But taking a closer look, maybe they should have been given a bit more pedigree.
“Growing up as a youth [in New York] we played in indoor tournaments which were more within the futsal system, with the ball allowed out of bounds, unlike the indoor soccer league – which had boards around the walls,” Windischmann, who skippered USA at Italy 1990, explained, at a time when the indoor game was hugely popular in the States.
“It was often played in a hockey rink with turf laid over it,” Dolan – who kept goal at Mexico 1986 for Canada – said, casting his mind back to the indoor North American leagues. “But [in 1989] it was proper futsal, but some of those skills transferred onto the hardwood floor and it was a very fun experience over in the Netherlands.”
Even with indoor experience, the US Soccer federation had few expectations of their charges in Europe. “We’d call back home and say ‘the team’s won their games and moving to the next round’, being met with the reply of ‘they did'?” Windischmann recalled incredulously. “Then they’d get another phone call saying ‘they’ve made the quarter-finals’, then ‘they’re in the semis now'!”
The hosts saw an end to their run, booking a place in the final against Brazil, but the USA captain enjoyed one final flurry. “The bronze medal match was incredible,” he said of a thrilling 3-2 win over the Belgians, in what were clearly cherished memories. “I was lucky enough to get a goal to put it into overtime, I always remember that one as the goalkeeper made a save and I scored with a backheel.” A Vermes strike a minute from time sealed their best-ever performance at a FIFA tournament, much to Windischmann’s surprise. “We didn’t even realise that until we got home and someone mentioned it.”
And even though it was the first tournament, the final was a classy affair. Brazil edged the encounter in front of over 4,000 fans packed into Rotterdam’s Sportpaleis Ahoy 2-1. Each and every goal was something special as the South Americans picked up the first of what now stands at five titles.
The days of World Cup stars gracing the pinnacle of futsal is likely an era confined to the past in the eyes of Laudrup, however, as the game has progressed, developed and the two sports have diverged. The last player to grace both, back in 2000, was Costa Rica’s Rolando Fonseca, before heading to Korea/Japan 2002.
“I sometimes watch the Brazilian futsal leagues and some of these guys are absolutely phenomenal,” the Danish France 1998 star explained, “but when they try it outside they can’t keep up that kind of play, because it’s a different ball game.”
Even so, at the start of the developing story of the FIFA Futsal World Cup, it was perhaps apt that it was started on its journey of forging its own path in sport with a helping hand from those who had made – or would go on to make – their names on football’s biggest stage of all.