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  • Writer's pictureMatt Olsen

Futsalroos: A closer look at the AFC Futsal Asian Cup with Shervin Adeli

Australia may not have a national sporting team more unified and prepared to spread its message than the Futsalroos. In recent years, a journey that developed from triumph, heartbreak, controversy, and division has again been moulded together for its next thrilling instalment as Australia prepares for the AFC Futsal Asian Cup tonight in Bangkok, Thailand. Front Page Football  spoke to 2016 World Cup member and current Futsalroos veteran Shervin Adeli to talk about the sport's recent history in Australia and the group's upcoming challenge.

The Futsalroos before their final warm up matches in Thailand at the weekend. (Image: Football Australia)


Firstly, we wanted to discuss the element of pre-tournament friendlies and life in the Asian Cup camp, knowing that the futsal players are, more often than not, hardly professionals in their everyday footballing lives. So, hearing Adeli's perspective on the preparation period for the team ahead of the tournament was intriguing.


"Things are very good. Everything is going smoothly, and I don't think we can complain much. We came here for pre-tournament friendlies in the last two weeks," Adeli told FPF.


"In the first week, we played in the NSDF tournament (named after a Thai sports fund), had a short trip back to Sydney, and then back [for] the last week in camp in Bangkok."


As a basic introduction to the sport and program, indoor futsal players usually excel in their craft by spending a lot of time and money in local competitions. However, many play the eleven-aside variant in Australia's lower tiers.


"We have got a few NPL players and a few important players in the NPL 1, others in NPL 2, so coming all together here is a good thing, and we have been lucky enough to have a futsal program in regards to the national team where there have been enough games, and it has all blended together nicely."

With that blend Adeli mentions, Australia did have a spring in their step heading into the pre-tournament cycle. They faced the likes of NSDF Championships host Thailand, underdogs Afghanistan, the highly respected Japan, and relative newcomer South Korea.


At the NSDF tournament, Australia started by facing the host, Thailand, and winning, which showed promise and growth. However, Adeli conceded that such an occasion is far different from how a tournament scenario may play out.


"Beating Thailand in Thailand is not easy, but we have gone on to achieve that and gained so much confidence to go up against anyone," he said.


"I think obviously the circumstances are different when you're in the Asian Cup itself, but for us and where we have come from, as semi-pros who've come together, whereas a lot of these teams have professional futsal players, it means the results are huge."

The 3-3 friendly result against Japan was another milestone moment for the playing group. (Image: Football Australia)


The narrative persists that within the current playing group, they are part-time players with the commonality of their goals to be world-class futsal players and to grow their version of the sport more, though, as Adeli says, it certainly is a shock to see the East and Southeast Asian sides, who have become hotbed locations for the sport, overcome by those same part-timers.


Here, the notion of "Aussie DNA" can also easily be applied to the Futsalroos.


Though on the tournament itself, the veteran says the ultimate test of World Cup hosts Uzbekistan will undoubtedly be a learning curve. However, Adeli believes it will set Australia up for a group stage to remember against similarly experienced sides in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.


"Our morale and confidence is really high; we obviously look one game at a time, starting with Uzbekistan, who are a powerhouse and hosting the World Cup. But I think if we build from what we have started in the campaign, we are in with a good chance to make it out of the group."

Qualifying from their group would then see Australia reach a vital checkpoint, setting up a quarter-final that could seal a surprise birth at the showpiece event in Tashkent.


It would come with precedent. Having been a solid performer in Asian futsal after joining the AFC, Australia did threaten to play on the global stage through wins against continental opponents, with decent displays from NPL-level players adapting to the shorter format.


This momentum all came to a head at the 2012 and 2016 Asian Cups, where Australia won the crucial playoff matches and put futsal on the country's map. Special mention goes to the 2016 campaign, where experience was gained and names stuck around to see the sport seriously reach its peak in Australia.


The 2016 World Cup in Colombia was memorable. It was the perfect introduction to the sport most football fans could have wished for. There were awesome atmospheres, crazy goals and score-lines, and many emerging nations made their names.


For Australia, it was a sliding doors moment, beating Africa's Mozambique relatively comfortably 3-2 before being outclassed by the professional all-conquering Brazil.

On matchday three against Ukraine, though, disaster struck when an opportunity to equalise late in the match went begging. The referee missed a very blatant handball on the edge of the area in Australia's attacking half.


All these years later, Adeli can look on with pride, understanding the more significant goal was achieved by the playing group and those who have made futsal a presence in the football scene.


"Just being on that stage was the achievement. We got there, beat Mozambique, and obviously, Brazil are always a top two or three team in the world. The Ukraine game was a final for us. We were hard done by, but look, we were there and fighting for futsal. But with circumstances after the tournament, we were not available to continue," he said.


Adeli refers to the essential defunding and removal of futsal as a core program under then-Football Federation Australia's guidance in late 2016. This negligence meant the heroic side's hopes of progressing further were cruelly tarnished, and the general progression of the sport was halted.


"Going from the pinnacle, being amongst the best teams in the world to not having a program and having to rebuild, we [have] ended up being out of the global scene for nearly ten years," Adeli said.


For further details, Adeli was asked about experiencing the sport's decline, if the players and community felt betrayed, and how this period has ultimately impacted where Australian futsal is now.


"I don't know the exact details, I don't know if we were betrayed, though I think it was sad for the whole playing group and anyone involved in futsal to have our program basically not exist after a World Cup," he added.


Adeli said the most significant loss in this era was losing the opportunities created by the sport, especially for those able to see Australia at a World Cup and look towards futsal as a development pathway.


"It was rough. I don't know the details, but as a player in that team and for those who were coming up the ranks, that was their motivation to play and say they went to a World Cup. Ultimately, that is how you build the sport," he said.


"We played in a World Cup and then had nothing going on for a long time, which was very hard to swallow. We didn't have something to play for or anything to look forward to; it was hard to keep ourselves in the game and hard to promote it."

Ultimately, in early 2020, Football Australia had an internal review. It prioritised futsal reform after a few years in the wilderness. It excited those wishing to see the national and domestic setups thrive again, something Adeli also says has been a massive contrast and is good to see.

 

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Moreover, the national teams are improving and have a better and more competitive schedule than ever.


"I know we're heading in the right direction and definitely had more games in the last year than the last five or six years, so something is going right. Ultimately, it was devastating, but we are on the right track now," Adeli said.


The biggest victory throughout the reform process was improved domestic infrastructure, meaning a stronger national Futsalross was built. In contrast, a more New South Wales and Victorian-based side emerged previously. The make-up of the national team sees talent from across the country, namely that of Football West product Tyler Garner.


"We have got a pretty strong core. We have guys like Tyler (Garner) from Perth, who is a big part of the core team we built," Adeli added.


"We want to qualify for a World Cup so we can keep building and keep playing our sport against the best teams in the world. If we do the job as the national team results-wise, then hopefully this has a retaliation back home for football people and players to get motivated, and for the sport to grow. The culture in the team and the potential of a World Cup will inspire the next crop of players coming up."

That is absolutely what this current cycle is all about for the Futsalroos. As Shervin said, encouraging positive retaliation from football's governing bodies, the communities looking to grow the game, and players who have had their dreams denied but finally thrust back into the spotlight shows why this team and its incredible journey are crucial to the broader landscape.


When Australia arrive at Bangkok Arena tonight, they are not just fighting for their nation but an entire sport.


You can catch the Futsalroos and the commencement of their AFC Futsal Asian Cup campaign tonight from 7pm AEST on the AFC Asian Cup's YouTube channel, where they face Uzbekistan in Group B.


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