WHEN you are 43, four years retired and enjoying a new career off the pitch, you don’t expect to be walking down the tunnel in the dark blue of your country, singing the national anthem and proceeding to make your international debut in a European Championship qualifying match.
That, though, is what James Grady did last Wednesday. At the start of an unlikely week in the Swedish town of Skovde, the man whose many clubs included Dundee, Dundee United, Partick Thistle and Gretna added Scotland to his CV by turning out for them in their first competitive futsal match.
“I’m still relatively fit, even though I’m the oldest guy here,” he says. “If you’re asked to represent your country at anything, even if it is Highland dancing, you jump at the chance. Back in my Arthurlie days, I played in an under-23 junior international. That’s the only other international recognition I’ve had.”
That is the good news. The bad is that Israel beat them 6-1. The following day, it was a 13-0 thrashing by Sweden. Grady was under no illusion that Scotland would sweep all before them in Group F of the preliminary round, but he could have done without a double-figure defeat in their first UEFA competition.
“The competitive edge never leaves you,” says Grady. “I’m raging and a bit embarrassed by the Sweden result, but you need to drag yourself back and be realistic. You have to look at where we are. We’re new to this sport. The team has only been together for 14 weeks. And a lot of the guys we’re playing against are professional. It’s a real eye-opener for me.”
Grady is the SFA’s player and coach development officer, but until recently, he knew little about futsal, which has been played in South America since the 1930s. Just about every Latin genius, from Pele to Neymar, Lionel Messi and the two Ronaldos, grew up playing on a futsal pitch, the tight confines of which teased from them their game-changing potential.
Futsal is more than just a glorified game of five-a-side. Sure, it is played indoors, with ten players, but the ball is smaller and less bouncy, there are no walls to forgive errors, and a system of rotating substitutes produces sophisticated tactical interventions, conducted at lightning speed.
Brazil are its superpower, Spain the best in Europe, but the game reaches much further afield. At the last count, Iran had 16 million registered players and 23,000 registered teams. In England, which was late in joining the party, there are 2,700 registered clubs. According to Mark Potter, coach of the Scottish national side, no sport in the world is growing faster.
It is a tool with which to develop young footballers – more small-sided games means more touches means more skill – but it is also an end in itself. Sao Paulo-born Falcao, the world’s most famous futsal player, was reportedly paid $25,000 (£16,500) a month when he represented Malwee/Jaragua, his club in Brazil.
“In the futsal strongholds of Spain, Portugal, Italy and South America, it is a bona fide career,” says Potter. “Kids play futsal from the age of five till 16, and then they decide which career path to take. Falcao said ‘I’ll be a futsal player because that’s where I can make the most money. I can stay in my home town and play for my local team’. Whereas Messi and Ronaldo… they went down the football path.”
Perth-based Potter, 48, pictured left, has been fascinated with futsal since he was introduced to it 18 years ago. It became an obsession after a visit to Belgium in 1999, when he was among 6,000 spectators watching a showpiece final between Sao Paolo, the best team on the planet, and Dynamo Moscow, the previous world champions.
He has been across Europe, meeting acclaimed futsal coaches such as Jose Venancio Lopez and Mico Martic. He has guided his club side, FC Santos, into the preliminary rounds of the UEFA Futsal Cup, the equivalent of the Champions League. What he hasn’t done is receive a penny in payment for his efforts. “I’m a volunteer,” he says. “Futsal has cost me tens of thousands over the years because it’s a passion. I could have spent that money on football, but I didn’t want to. There is plenty money in football.”
Now the partner and manager of a plumbing and heating merchant, Potter used to be the leisure manager at Bell’s Sports Centre in Perth. There, he developed Scotland’s first futsal league. There are others in Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh, but the sport’s recent progress, with a little help from the SFA, has not extended as far as Glasgow, which is still without regular competition.
Potter’s dream is for Scottish futsal to be organised as it is abroad, albeit on a smaller scale. One day, he would love to see a pyramid of 200-300 clubs, the best of them represented in an elite league, supported by at least five venues with a full-size court, able to hold up to 1,000 spectators.
At grassroots level, football’s existing pathway from soccer fours to seven-a-side and the full-size game would be complemented by a futsal system that improved the skills of developing players. The SFA already provides a futsal coaching course for volunteers. “The ultimate goal would be to have an adult structure, which supported the ambition of futsal players, and a development structure, which supported the ambition of young footballers,” says Potter. “That way, everybody wins.”
In an ideal world, there would be no place in the national side for a 43-year-old such as Grady. There would be no room for the likes of Garry Hay, left, the former Kilmarnock player drafted in to help a squad otherwise made up of junior players, most of whom emerged successfully from an open trial in Perth last September.
Instead, there would be more like Richard Horlock, an Englishman who plays for money in Croatia, but is in the Scotland squad courtesy of a Scottish granny. Or Ross Chisholm, the former Hibs and Dundee midfielder, who now turns out for Hurlford United.
At 27, Chisholm is young enough – and, according to Potter, good enough – to make futsal his game. “I would like to take it further,” says the player. “Mark has his ideas about what should happen. So do the SFA. If the opportunity came along to play regularly, I would look at it seriously.”
Much to his team-mates’ amusement, Chisholm was booked in the Israel game. When one of his opponents was slow to take a kick-in, Chisholm threw the ball at him and told him to hurry up. “I thought they were time-wasting,” he explains. “I forgot that, in futsal, when the ball goes out of play, they stop the clock.” Like almost everyone else in Scotland, he is new to this game.