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The Great American Futsal Initiative

Written by Will Parchman

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The Cruyff Court’s soul is reverse engineered urbanization. Urbanity, or at least American urbanity, seeks to eliminate dead space in highly prized city environments and fill it with steel and glass. The U.S. has so much space that it becomes a sort of throw-away item to be used with all the nuance of an elephant painting a landscape. Strip mall culture did not rise in a vacuum.

And so the American city, quite unlike its more ancient or less developed counterparts abroad, is a continual frantic crush to fill space with commercial items of uniquely business interest: malls, high-rises, apartment complexes, luxury stores. The idea of greenspace in these places is unique and mostly grandfathered in. Parks and recreation areas exist because they were there before, not because they were formed from nothingness and meticulously planned. As any city-goer knows, newly planned parks – however big – carved out of land previously owned by businesses is a rare thing indeed.

The futsal-based Cruyff Court, at his heart, is a sort of urbanized role reversal. The Cruyff Foundation, started in 1997, began pushing these small futsal courts into densely-packed urban environments in the Netherlands to, as they put it, “bring the old playing field back into the neighborhood.” It was a stand, however small, against urban creep; land that existed for no purpose other than free play.

There is an ulterior motive, of course. By artificially engineering and thus replicating the more hardscrabble street environments in places where skill is most readily found, the courts themselves point toward individual technical ability by pushing unstructured play. The idea is to break the bonds of teamthink and force an individual player to see space for himself, to drop the game into a sort of geometrical prism. Space is tight. Time is short. Find a way. It should come as no surprise then that both of those challenges were conquered so uniquely by Cruyff himself.

One of my favorite soccer books is David Winner’s Brilliant Orange, a deep-dive into the psyche and brilliance of Dutch soccer at its best. And his assessment of Cruyff and the broader Dutch obsession with the proper use of limited space is, I think, supremely relevant as we in the U.S. assess the ultimate role of futsal in our urban city centers and neighborhoods.

“Players did what the tiny, skinny teenager told them to do because he was right. Cruyff didn’t talk about abstract space but about specific, detailed spatial relations on the field. Indeed, the most abiding image of him as a player is not of him scoring or running or tackling. It is of Cruyff pointing. ‘No, not there, back a little… forward two metres… four metres more to the left.’ He seemed like a conductor directing a symphony orchestra. It was as if Cruyff was helping his colleagues to realise an approximate rendering on the field to match the sublime vision in his mind of how the space ought to be ordered. Dirk Sijmons marvels: ‘There was something spiritual about it. To me, he seemed like a grandmaster of chess playing twenty games in his head simultaneously. And there was almost a kind of telekinesis.'”

There is more to this than mere sport. Away from the soccer field, the Dutch drained all manner of bodies of water to carve out their own spatial existence, creating a sort of uber-appreciation for the clever use of space. This, also, from Winner’s book.

“The Dutch pavilion at Expo 2000 is called ‘Holland Schept Ruimte’ – ‘Holland makes space.’ At the exhibition site in Hanover, the flattest nation in Europe has the highest pavilion: a dazzlingly clever forty-metre-high structure designed by Rotterdam architects MVRDV, which plays with some of the most familiar Dutch clichés. The country’s position partly under sea level is represented by a large artificial lake on the roof; below this, huge trees grow through the middle of the open-sided structure. In the basement there are sand dunes. The building aims to show off Holland’s talent for ‘making space for new environments, for new solutions, for new land and nature, and for new lifestyles and ideas.’

“The concept’s author, Dr. Michiel Schwartz, explains that the Netherlands is a ‘country by design’ which thrives by creating cultural and personal ‘freedom by design.'”

In this context, it’s impossible not to see Cruyff’s impassioned post-career turn to futsal courts through a sort of lens of inevitability. Not only was he eternally consumed by the efficient use of limited space, but it’s literally one of the defining pillars of his home culture. The Dutch are raised on land wrested and won from the sea, and the appreciation for the ground upon which they stand is born out in the way they use it. Every inch matters, and when the national team is playing into its identity – something it has admittedly not done for years – its tactical nous is as much about intellectual urban planning as it is about anything.

In 2016, the second Cruyff Court opened in the U.S. The first opened in Orlando a few years before, and Chicago was offered as the second guinea pig. It opened in Rainey Park, strategically across the street from an elementary school and nestled in the Oak Lawn suburb southwest of the city center. It represented an encouraging if desperately incomplete initiative. Small-sided, improvisational soccer has never been an American specialty. U.S. players, more known for their verve and tenacity than their balletic skill, have not really had the opportunity, even, to make it a specialty. We have to thank an urban plan that has largely been allowed to plan us.

Futsal itself in this country is not a new phenomenon, but it is a relatively new youth initiative as an agent of development. Six years after founding its Development Academy, U.S. Soccer for the first time added a futsal component to its U14 group for the 2013-14 season. The early returns have been good, but most acknowledge the most valuable experience won’t come this way.

Futsal as an extension of Development Academy team play is fine, but it isn’t the point. Players dropping into unstructured games in the neighborhood with friends on a weekly (nightly, even) basis to try things (Americans as a whole do not try enough “things”) and use the courts as a canvas is where the “world” begins to creep in front of the “class.” You don’t need planned environments to do this. Walking through the streets of Buenos Aires, I was surprised to see as many basketball courts as soccer-specific venues, but every court has a small goal tacked to the base of the net pole. But it’s also clear young American players could use some prodding. And this is where the “unplanned planned” American futsal initiative has its deepest, healthiest root.

Some MLS clubs already caught wise to the wave. The Red Bulls pitched in for two futsal courts in Hoboken last year with more in Manhattan. Since last fall, Sporting KC’s dropped 20 futsal courts in 11 different locations around the area. And these are all deeply beneficial things, but for the movement to catch on it needs to be in the hundreds, and we need to convince an increasingly soccer-mad youth populace that this is how Neymar learned how to embarrass defenders in space. Small-sided unstructured games on Ondarreta Beach in Basque country are how Xabi Alonso learned to dissect the game. So it goes.

But you also need a broader marketing push to let people know it’s there and entice them to the small-sided fields they were meant to occupy. And to this end I say: hire an idealist, an agent of change, a popular face of the movement. If it were up to me, I’d hire Cantona.

My favorite commercialism-meets-soccer moment is undoubtedly Nike’s The Cage series from the early 2000’s. In it, three-a-side teams made up of the world’s best players at the time squared off in a faux-tournament inside a tanker in the middle of the ocean. The winners advanced and the losers were forced to jump ship and… paddle home? That part wasn’t so well fleshed out. In the context of the fake narrative I assume most of the world’s most skilled players drowned to death as a result of this tournament. So maybe it wasn’t such a great thing after all.

In any case, it was so great primarily because it made the game look so fun. Here are men defined by the Serious Business of making millions and winning trophies, and they’re pulling off scorpion kicks and nutmegs and fake-shoe-tying tricks to score goals on tiny nets made of metal mesh. I still watch this in full at least a couple times a year (and let’s say it’s especially timely today since Francesco Totti, whose team wins this fake tournament, is about to retire).

This, I think, is at the heart of the futsal game, and the primary story it needs to tell. Eric Cantona, who I mentioned earlier, is the emcee for The Cage, and he’s always had this sort of ethereal hold on the game. I’m a dreamer, but if I had $100 million dollars (or if someone I knew conveniently had $100 million), I’d blitz every major metro area in the U.S. with futsal courts, invite Cantona to pull an Uncle Drew campaign on young Americans who no doubt have no idea who he is, and film the thing as the pure small-sided joy washes over urban environment after environment.

The game’s face now is Champions League and World Cup and FIFA and federation wrangling and How Do We Grow. But its heart is and has always been in these moments of joy divorced from all that. It is on the courts, wedged into small space and breathing free.

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