It took a while to finally arrive but when it did, it did not disappoint. The Futsal Club Championship, India’s maiden foray into futsal, was meant to get underway in 2020.
Of course, COVID-19 put a proverbial spanner in the works and the tournament got pushed back by a whole year. And even in 2021, the tournament still dealt with the effects of the ongoing pandemic.
Held entirely at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium in New Delhi, the maiden Futsal Club Championship was played out behind closed doors.
The final saw a select few seated in the stands but, due to COVID protocols in place in the capital, it was far from a full house. Of course, none of this stopped the players from going out there and giving it their all.
The name of Delhi FC will forever be etched in futsal history in the country; after all, they won the first-ever championship of this kind. And they did so in emphatic fashion too, seeing off Mohammedan Sporting Club 7-2.
⚡ CHAMPIONS ⚡
🏆 @Delhi_FC have clinched the first-ever Hero Fultsal Club Championship title 🏆
MDSP 2️⃣-7️⃣ DFC
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) November 13, 2021
As champions, they will enter the 2022 AFC Futsal Club Championship, futsal’s equivalent of the AFC Champions League. Yet this tournament was about more than determining just that.
No, it was about the start of something new and, more importantly, getting that start right. In both senses, it’s safe to say that it was mission accomplished for the authorities.
AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das, who was in attendance, was certainly pleased with what he saw. “I think it’s a fantastic beginning for the tournament,” he told SportsLumo after the trophy ceremony.
“Sadly, there were no spectators due to the COVID-19 situation. Given a Delhi team won the tournament, I’m sure we would have had many fans here in the stadium. But I am very optimistic and encouraged by what I saw.”
Indeed, a Delhi team winning the tournament was noteworthy, given the national capital’s lack of representation in the top flights of Indian football. But it wasn’t just the capital – who also had Sudeva Delhi FC in the tournament – that saw good representation.
That the likes of Baroda FC from Gujurat, Classic FA from Imphal, Mangala Club from Odisha and Speed Force FC from Telangana – but to name a few – were sides that participated was also a plus.
This was highlighted by Sunando Dhar, CEO of Leagues and Development for the AIFF. “The best part was that the 16 teams came from 12 different states,” he told this correspondent after the game had ended.
“The tournament percolated down to the states, which is what we want. Futsal has huge potential; it’s fast-paced and action-oriented. I’m sure if we had crowds here it would be fantastic, but obviously going forward it will be bigger and better.”
Indeed, for a historic first in Indian football, the lack of proper crowds felt wrong. However, it added to the spectacle for the select few who were present at the venue.
Picking out the calls of players on the pitch was easy, as was hearing the benches of both sides voice their frustration as and when a decision went against them.
The coaches and players certainly did not shy away from voicing their opinions to the officials. Yet perhaps the biggest selling point of this format is that there is little let-up in intensity.
A standard football game, despite a relatively short length, can often descend into lull periods. This is especially true when one team is winning by a comfortable margin.
However, this wasn’t the case in the final between Delhi FC and Mohammedan Sporting. Delhi, even while comfortably ahead, did not stop looking for goals. Mohammedan, despite trailing for large parts of the second half, did not let their heads drop.
The fact that unlimited substitutions are allowed is also a bonus. Players were subbed in and out on a regular basis, ensuring both sides stayed fresh and could play on the front foot.
Yet by the final few minutes, it was evident where the trophy was headed. Delhi FC led the game 7-2, with five of those goals coming from their talismanic captain Nikhil Mali.
Mali would end the tournament as both the top-scorer with 24 goals as well as bag the league’s MVP trophy. It wouldn’t be surprising if a top football team showed some interest in signing him in the near future.
But that’s a story for another time. For now, the focus should remain on what was achieved with this – and what more can still be done.
Given that futsal is, in essence, a niche within a niche in the Indian context, it is safe to say that the potential for growth is there. It also provides another platform for players who might be waiting for their chance in the big leagues.
Indeed, Delhi skipper Nikhil Mali told this correspondent afterwards that he hoped an ISL or I-League club took notice of his performances. Thus, futsal has the potential to showcase such players from around the country.
Of course, for that to happen, there must also be a focus on expanding the reach of the format. That would mean, of course, introducing it at youth level and also bringing it into the women’s game.
When asked if plans for expansion were in the works, Sunando Dhar said that was the goal – although the focus for now is on this tournament itself.
“Ideally, yes (we will expand futsal’s reach to youth and women’s football). This is the first step we are taking, so would want to improve on this first before expanding. But this would be an ideal platform for youth development and the women’s game too.
“At the moment though, the focus will be on making this tournament bigger and better.”
What the future holds for futsal in India is something only time will tell. The start, however, has been fairly encouraging.