The Spanish futsal team will play their first matches in April after the Eurocup in Slovenia. The runners-up of the 2018 Futsal Euro will face Finland in a double friendly match on April 2nd in Pontevedra, and the following day in Ferrol. While fans can find plenty of information about Spanish futsal, little is known about the sport the Nordic country. Their national team currently occupies the 18th place in the UEFA futsal ranking. We wanted to give an insight into how futsal is doing in Finland, and know something more about Spain’s next rivals. The best thing to do was to ask for help to somebody directly involved in the sport. Who better than the Finnish national team captain, Panu Autio?
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From the ice rink to the parquet court
Born on August 4th, 1985, Panu Autio has played 112 games and scored 82 goals representing his country, even though he “[does] not consider [himself] as a natural born goal scorer”. At club level, he has played most of his career – and is still playing – for Golden Futsal Team (GFT), club from Espoo, which is also his hometown.
He began playing futsal at the age of 18 and joined GFT in 2003, right after the team’s first title: “I was relatively old, but futsal was quite new in Finland and the league was not the same as it is today” he recalls. “My versatile history with different sports, especially ice hockey (high tempo, fast decisions, low body position) and football in my youth, helped me to become a futsal player relatively soon.” Three years later (2006), he got his first call for the national team and “realised [he] could also compete at international level”.
As a young Finnish futsal player in the early 2000s, it was not easy to find information about the big leagues: “There was no Youtube clips or live streaming of futsal games at that time. Basically, the international competitions on Eurosport were the only possibility to see top level futsal. I also travelled to Portugal to watch the Eurocup in 2007, where I saw Ricardinho live for the first time. Later on, when I played in Murcia, Vinicius and Kike Boned were my big idols.”
Travel. That’s a key-word – sounding like an imperative – for young futsal players from countries where the sport is still in its early stages. That’s what Autio did, not only as a fan to attend big events, but also as a player, as he mentioned. In 2010, he had the big chance: to play in Spain, the best place possible. Two seasons in 2nd Division: the first in Murcia, with ElPozo’s second team, the next one in Ceuta, for Unión África Ceutí. He then came back to Finland due to the economical crisis, but got signed in June 2013 for Russian Superleague club Politech St. Petersburg.
“I think that these experiences taught me things outside the pitch and made me grow up a lot as a human being. I made so many good friends and learnt so much about different cultures. During my first year abroad in particular, in Murcia with ElPozo, I felt like being in the best University of futsal in the world. Professor Duda and all the great players like Vinicius, Alvaro, Kike, Dani Salgado, Rafa etc were there at that time. I had the chance to train with them and play in the second team with future stars like Bebe and Alex. It was an amazing experience.”
From the sun of Ceuta to the bookstores
Autio’s experience in Spain inspired him to write a book, Futsalista: “I realised how little we knew about futsal in Finland. I wanted to share what I learnt with the my futsal people. It was 4 years of hard work studying futsal and writing things down before I published it in 2014.”
The book had a very good reception in his country: “It was great. I got lots of great feedback and sold out the first edition (500 copies) in one month. I still dream to translate the book into English someday. Hopefully, I can manage to find funding and co-operators for that.”
Autio has also played in the UEFA Futsal Cup in four occasions. In 2008 and 2009 with GFT, in 2015 with Sievi (winner of the last three editions of the Finnish Futsal Liiga), and in 2017 with the Maltese Luxol St. Andrews. “It is a good competition and I have enjoyed every single international game” he says, ”I am happy that UEFA has decided to develop it further. The Champions League of futsal deserves more attention and a bigger status.”
A growing sport in Finland
Panu Autio’s career has been quite impressive so far, but what is the overall situation of futsal in Finland? In which position would he place it in a list of sports by popularity in the country?
“Futsal is growing fast in Finland. There are more than 40,000 players participating in official competitions annually. That’s the fourth biggest number in the country (after football, floorball and ice hockey). Unfortunately, its popularity doesn’t show that much in the media or in attendance yet. For example, we have more futsal players than basketball players, but basketball gets much more attention thanks to its tradition and good work in the very top level. However, things are changing and futsal is getting more and more attention.”
Futsal Liiga’s 2018 playoffs began on the Spanish Cup weekend with the quarter finals. GFT is playing against Ilves. GFT’s last national title was in 2009. After that, Ilves FS won five Finnish leagues in a row, followed by three consecutive triumphs by Sievi. However, “the league is much more equal than you could imagine only by checking out the list of the champions. The top six teams are working well nowadays and any of them can be champions.”
What about female futsal? The Finnish Women’s League is the only one appearing on popular live score websites (e.g. Flashscore and similar). Is it a signal of popularity of female futsal in Finland, or is it just a coincidence?
“Female futsal is extremely important for our sport. It is unbelievable that FIFA has not introduced a women’s World Cup yet. If FIFA and UEFA want campaigns like #EqualGame to be more legitimate, these things should change immediately and women should have equal rights when it comes to futsal competitions. Also, federations should support this development with communication, and live score services are one very concrete example of that. I am happy that, in my country, there is a certain level of equality in this sense. The female league in Finland has developed fast and our women’s national team has just started and gained immediately some good results.”
The King in the North
The Finnish futsal team is quite dominant in the Nordic area, winning three out of four editions of the Nordic Futsal Cup without losing a match. ”The work with the national team has been excellent thanks to our committed and passionate players and our excellent coaching staff led by Mićo Martić,” Autio explains, “so, the development and success in the Nordics has been logical and based on smart and hard work”.
Finland, however, still have to reach their first qualification for a major tournament (i.e., Euro or World Cup), even thogh Autio feels that it is just a matter of time: “Last time in the Euro qualifiers we were basically one second away from taking the next step”. Finland was winning 5-3 against Romania in the qualifiers, but conceded two goals in the last four seconds. “I am confident that if we keep on working and developing like we have done so far, we will play in a major final tournament very soon.”
Things have changed since that 13-0
The first and last time Finland played against Spain was in 2004. The result was 13-0. “I did not play in that game, but I’ve heard stories about it. We are not maybe going to win 13-0, but I can guarantee that things have changed drastically,” he says with a smile.
It is definitely true that futsal in Finland has grown a lot since that 13-0 defeat. Autio claims that this was possible “thanks to passionate and curious individuals who carry the futsal virus. Furthermore, an adequate support from the federation has been fundamental. For example, coaching education and longer futsal competitions, along with a season that is overlapping with football, has helped us to build a strong own identity within the Finnish football family. International cooperation (players playing abroad, foreign coaches and players coming to Finland, etc.) has helped us to improve as well.”
What is still missing is something common to many (if not all) countries with a developing futsal culture: professionalism. “The next most difficult and most important step will be for clubs to become more professional in all aspects of work. It is impossible to compete against countries like Spain without full-time futsal professionals.”
Aggressive, organised, disciplined: what to expect from Finland
Talking about Spain, let’s go back to the matches against them. What should they pay their particular attention to? What are Finland’s strong points?
“Spain will face a well organised and aggressively pressing Finland. We have developed our ball possession a lot in the last few years, but our strongest point is still the collective and disciplined defence. I believe even Spain will have difficulties in overcoming the pressure if we do it as well as we can.”
Autio also gives us a couple of names from his team to write down. The first is Miika Hosio, “one of the best pivots in the world when it comes to put pressure on the first line”. The second is Jukka Kytölä, an “extremely smart ‘cierre’ who is playing a very good season. The most complete futsal player in Finland at the moment.”
Finland’s good defensive organisation was evident in the first half of their match against Italy in the Main Round of Futsal Euro 2016 qualifying. You can see the match in the video below:
Futsal Corner truly appreciates the time Panu Autio dedicated to answer our questions. We send him our best wishes for the future with both his club and national team.
Author: Emanuele R. (Twitter: @eman_risso)
Cover image: vierumaki.fi