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Futsal joins its big brother
THINK futsal, or five-a-side football, and the picture that comes to mind is either of teenage boys or of middle-aged men huffing, puffing and swearing their way through a weekly game in a desperate attempt to lose weight or relive their youthful dreams of footballing glory.
So it may come as a surprise to learn that for an increasing number of players, futsal has become a paid profession and that the top teams now pay foreign players to live in Cyprus and play in the leagues.
Professional futsal has become such a popular spectator sport that the top teams even have their share of fire-cracker and stone-throwing hooligans more usually associated with futsal’s big brother, football.
A futsal league that had been quietly developing over the years has been transformed by the entrance of the local football giants.
Omonoia Nicosia were the first to enter the world of futsal three years ago, quickly followed by AEK, AEL and Enosis Neon Paralimniou. And then this year came the icing on the cake: Omonoia’s arch rivals - APOEL and Anorthosis - have also entered the futsal fray.
Anorthosis decided to take the long route by entering their team in the lowest division and building up, while APOEL, after months negotiating with different teams, decided to take a ‘shortcut’ and co-operate with an already existing team in the first division.
The entry of the big guys has added to the challenges of the league.
“This year the league is a lot more enjoyable than in previous seasons,” says APOEL player and England international Robert Ursell.
Regulations state that teams are allowed to field three foreign players in any game and are permitted to have four on their squad list during the season. These players come from a range of countries including, Brazil, Latvia, Moldova, Georgia and England.
Although the money these players receive cannot begin to be compared to the money professional footballers receive in most countries, they live quite comfortably, often more comfortably than if they had remained in their home countries. Wages vary from anywhere between €600 and €1000 a month but players also receive at least one meal a day and a rent-paid flat to live in. Omonoia and Ararat have both provided cars for their players and Parnassos have found jobs for their foreign players to supplement their salaries.
“Here all the teams have internationals and this year all but one team have foreign players making each game very unpredictable for the first time in Cyprus,” says Ursell.
Although the wage bill is comparatively low, clubs don’t receive much money back as the majority of them do not charge entrance to watch matches. The football association allow teams to charge €5 for entrance if they want to and some clubs have issued €50 season tickets in attempt to bring in funds although they usually have to rely heavily on the charitable nature of their sponsors. These sponsors range from banks (for SPE Strovolou), private organisations (for Ararat), private businesses (for Parnassos) or other sponsors.
Of course some teams receive virtually no sponsorship and cannot pay any of their players. This mainly applies to teams in the lower regions of the first division and most teams in the second and third.
Futsal’s growing popularity has been reflected in the media coverage. LTV has televised the cup final for sometime, but this year for the first time, a regular league match was televised live, albeit by private channel Cyprus Sports.
Not surprisingly, the televised game was between Nicosia rivals, APOEL and Omonoia. It was an exciting first airing, ending 3-3, with APOEL equalising with seven seconds left on the clock.
Inevitably, fan violence reared its head when an APOEL fan threw a rock at the Omonoia players, striking the goalkeeper in the face ensuring the game was delayed for almost half an hour while he received medical attention.
The general consensus of those involved in professional futsal in Cyprus is to view the increase in spectators and media attention as a huge positive, but the main worry is the escalation of incidents such as the one during the APOEL-Omonoia match.
Prior to Omonoia’s rise three seasons ago, the two most famous Cyprus futsal teams were Ararat and Parnassos.
Ararat have existed since 1999 and are by far the most successful team in Cyprus, winning seven league titles, six cups and reaching the Elite Round of 16 in Europe two years ago. As their name suggests they are an Armenian club and they get most of their funding from the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) in New York. Although the team fields mostly local players, it also began the season with three Brazilians.
Parnassos have been around for just as long but have only managed two league titles and one cup, always providing Ararat with the sternest opposition.
Most sports in Cyprus see clubs changing coaches every season or even after a bad defeat and futsal doesn’t differ that much, although over the last few seasons there has been a gradual shift to younger coaches.
Koullis Mavroudis, 34, of Omonoia, Ttomis Chrysostomou, 35, of Parnassos, George Kyriacou, 31, of SPE and 33-year-old Pampos Christoforou of APOEL are the coaches of the current top four teams in the first division. This shows the enormous faith clubs have shown in promoting from within, as is the case with Omonoia and Parnassos but also of taking a relatively inexperienced coach, the case with APOEL and SPE and giving them the chance to prove themselves.
“I thought being coach was going to be easier than it actually was,” said Omonia’s Mavroudis. “From the first day that I took over I promised myself I was going to work hard and prove to myself and the people in charge that I could be successful.”
Mavroudis had a tough act to follow last season, following in the footsteps of Karol Costanian who had won the double the previous season. He succeeded despite having his doubters, breaking world futsal records for least amount of goals conceded on the way to winning the double himself.
“I didn’t succeed on my own. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my players and to the committee for showing their faith in me,” he said.
Peter Stevenson currently plays in the second tier of Cyprus futsal with Elpida Astromeriti. He has played for Cyprus College and Ararat, winning the double and reaching the last 16 of Europe with the latter. He also served as assistant coach of Ararat last season and has always taken an active role in the futsal community on the island.