The Safira players represent the local Brazilian presence in football that lasted until the club was founded in 2007. However, the roots of indoor soccer in New England go back more than a century, before the recognized origins of fútbol sala (Spanish for “indoor soccer”), which lasted until the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay.
In fact, the story goes that James Naismith invented basketball in part because so many windows were broken during soccer games in the YMCA gym in Springfield. And futsal father Juan Carlos Ceriani was likely inspired by his experience as a student at Springfield College when he presented the game in Montevideo.
But until the 1980s, when the first Futsal World Cup was held, five-a-side football was mostly played informally. The US reached the semifinals in 1989 and ’92 with players competing on courts with hockey boards in professional leagues. (Regulated futsal is usually played on areas the size of basketball courts, with five players on each side).
However, the U.S. program declined after the team lost four games in a row at the 2008 World Cup and failed to form a squad after failing to qualify for the 2016 World Cup.
US Soccer revitalized its futsal program in late 2019, hiring coach Dusan Jakica, a senior process manufacturing engineer at Stratasys Direct Manufacturing in Minnesota who ran professional teams in Novi Sad, Serbia before moving to the US in 2015.
Jakica’s identification camps attracted more than 500 players from across the country. Jakica went for a player outside the US – goalkeeper Diego Moretti, 39, who plays in Italy’s Serie A. Maciel, 43, who set up goalscorers for Quinnipiac more than 20 years ago, was the team’s oldest player.
The rest of the team included the Californian Eduardo Buenfil; Michigander Jeremy Klepal; New Jersey supporters Raphael Araujo and Luciano Gonzalez; New Yorker Julian Escobar; Texan Eduardo Macias and 19-year-old Tomas Pondeca, who was named CONCACAF’s best young player; and Wisconsites Zach Reget, a cheesehead from Kenosha, and the Brazilian-born Milwaukeean Guilherme Veiga.
Training camps included games in Croatia in March 2020 before pandemic restrictions brought the program back to a halt and forced Jakica to start over.
“First of all, we don’t have futsal in the US [because] we don’t have a professional league, ”said Jakica. “When we started we didn’t even have a ranking.”
A statement in Guatemala
The US players only got back together in Atlanta at the end of April, a week before the qualifying tournament. That would be the extent of their preparation – that is, they hadn’t played a game in over a year when they traveled to Guatemala City.
The USA opened on May 3rd with a 1-1 draw against El Salvador in the specially built Domo Polideportivo, Maciel’s bicycle kick equalized in the last few minutes. That result turned out to be the difference as the US took first place in Group D due to goal difference. And the goal was selected as the “Top Game” of the day by ESPN, although it didn’t seem to surprise Maciel’s teammates; he scored “three or four” goals for Safira.
Leadership in the group meant the US delayed their clash with Guatemala until the semi-finals. In the quarter-finals, with a World Cup spot on the line, the US prevailed with a 2-0 win over the Dominican Republic as Araujo converted a corner in the third minute and Pondeca scored in the second half.
As the US prepared for the semi-finals, several players and coaches suffered from digestive problems. The team could have sent it in, because a place in the top four was enough for a World Cup place. But the US held Guatemala 2-2 and were outnumbered after a red card from Pondeca. Then the US took penalties, with Maciel, Junior and Sobreira converting.
In the final, Reget equalized after a “rainbow” touch to get past a defender, then a chip over the goalkeeper – extremely difficult moves in a small space. But tournament MVP Milinton Tijerino made the score decisive when Costa Rica took the title.
Much of the US team’s success came from the leadership of Jakica, whose tactics and team selections proved solid. The players were impressed that he was preparing until the wee hours of the morning when they played six times in seven days.
Jakica and assistant coach Otto Orf and Pablo Da Silva, a former Safira player, left little to chance. But when it came to making political and social statements, they left it to the players, who decided to walk hand in hand and stand at attention during the national anthem.
“We acted as a family, held hands and stood up with our heads held high and represented our country,” said Jakica. “It’s beautiful – it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose the game, we sent a message. With the things that happen in our country, I know what it means to have no money, there is civil war, all stupid things.
“You have to guess what [you have]. I don’t have to see if you are blue, green or white, I am interested in you as a person. My message is that we go there united and represent the United States. “
Jakica also hopes to promote futsal as the key to the development of the outdoor game.
“Before 2000, when Spain and Portugal started their futsal programs, they hadn’t won anything,” noted Jakica. “Then they won the world championship” [Spain in 2010] and European Championship [Portugal in 2016].
“All over the world we are building players that way through this game. We have all the resources, everything we need here. It’s not a big investment. “
That could just be the beginning
The impromptu nature of futsal encourages spontaneity, and the limited dimensions of the pitch require quick reactions and ultra-dense ball control, often using the sole of the foot.
Observers see elements of futsal in outdoor play: Ronaldo scored a goal for Brazil at the 2002 World Cup; The German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer moves out of the goal area, hands down, spreads out, plays the ball with his feet; Christian Pulisic, whose father trained and played indoor soccer, made quick touches and turns.
NORVIN MENDOZA / STRAFFONIMAGES / NORVIN MENDOZA
Globally, proponents say, futsal might actually be more popular than regular football, as pickup games take place wherever there is space, much like basketball in the US. And that could just be the beginning. The hope is to move the US women’s futsal and US youth team programs forward; introduce sport to the Olympic Games; found a professional league in the USA; Incorporate futsal into the development plans of MLS teams; US application to host CONCACAF qualifying matches and the FIFA Futsal World Cup.
“If they really start working with youth departments, the US is sure to win the World Cup in the next two or three world championships,” said Andre Ferreira, who has coached Safira to four national championships. “There are so many young talents here.
“Look at what Belgium and Croatia did with the game. Even Germany reset everything after 2002 and said we will win the World Cup in the next 10 years, no pressure to do it now. And they developed and won players [in 2014]. “
But first the USA must prepare for the upcoming Futsal World Cup. The level of competition will be much higher than the regional tournament, including well-paid professional players, some of whom are considered the sport’s superstars.
“We will play there as a family; It doesn’t matter who is on the other side, ”Jakica said. “If it’s Brazil, we’ll give our hearts on the field, we’ll fight. We can only take advantage of this competition. Brazil, Portugal, Spain are very hard to beat.
“Maybe it’s science fiction. But nobody can take our dreams away from us. We will represent our country and put the USA on the futsal world map. We didn’t rank in the top 100 and now we are [45th]. “