In the latest ETS interview, I spoke to the captain of the Finnish futsal national team Panu Autio. Some very in depth answers, thanks again Panu. I'll also add that the interview was done in Finnish in order to get the full breadth of answers.
You’ve played both football and futsal at high levels – which is harder?
Personally football is a lot more difficult for me because the ball bounces more, the pitch is bigger and there are more players. Futsal is a simpler game, where decision making means the basic principles of the game are more pronounced in relation to physics for instance. Futsal is more wholesome. Attention is more focused on small details of the game and the conducting those with skill is the thing that makes the difference.
How did you get into futsal?
I played football for FC Espoo and my fellow player Janne "Boogie" Laine got me to go along. "Boogie" was the captain of the national team at that time, as well as the GFT player coach. When I got the hang of it, I realised futsal was the perfect fit for me. You could say it was love at first sight!
Do you think that more professional footballers should try futsal during winter?
It is fun and it gives you new points of view on the game. On the futsal pitch, you learn technical tools in a smaller space such as using the soles of your feet, protecting the ball and a lower playing stance. So why not? I am fairly convinced that one reason why Brazilian and Spanish footballers have a better understanding of the game than Finns is partly because they have played futsal as kids.
You and Pekka Sihvola spent time playing in South America, what did you learn from it?
I learned about how many different footballing cultures there are in the world. I learned how to work in a different changing room and how it is to show yourself to a completely strange foreign team where other players are completing with you for the same work and game opportunities. I also learned Spanish.
As you’re also working with JPY (Finland's player union), what are the biggest challenges facing young footballers?
I currently work for JPY as a Contact Manager. To work as a professional footballer is challenging in Finland and wages (that were never that high to begin with) have come down in the last couple of years. Compared with other countries, in Finland the status of a professional footballer in society's hierarchy is lower than in other countries. Here even the cleaner of the stadium often earns more than the youngest players in the league. It is an absurd situation and explaining it to a Spaniard, an Italian or a German might be difficult. A different career path may therefore seem an easier and smarter choice. On the other hand, because of these reasons, you can say that in Finland the top footballers are working with total commitment.
What role can sport play in helping integrate refugees and immigrants?
This is a big question. Sport, and football in particular, is probably the best way to help refugees into the Finnish society. Football is a universal language and on the pitch everyone is equal in front of the game. We already have so many positive stories of players who have risen to key roles in our national teams. U21 national team captain Mosa Yaghoubi for example is a brilliant example that we can be proud of here in Finland. If football becomes important in the refugee question, this can also help the popularity of the game in Finland. The player organisation has for several years organised a "Football Belongs to Everyone" campaign that concludes with a national championship tournament between the reception centres.
Do you think futsal can become as pivotal as street football in developing talent?
Futsal is very similar to street football. Making distinctions between the street game, football and futsal is extremely difficult and often quite unnecessary. In Finland the street, park and yard footballing culture is fairly non-existent. I believe that futsal could bridge this gap in Finnish football and sports culture. I especially hope that futsal tournaments at different levels could become more common in Finland.
In recent years, futsal has become more popular – what will happen next?
The growth in popularity will most likely continue for a while. The Finnish national team is the Nordic Cup and the Baltic Cup champions so we could act as a kind of pathfinder for other Northern European countries. I also hope that futsal is more actively chosen in the school sports curriculum. Afterwards I would like to see Finnish futsal leagues getting more professional and the media get increasingly interested alongside it.
How much support do you get from Palloliitto (Finnish football association) for resources and facilities?
Palloliitto does a lot of good work for futsal and they have understood futsal's value and potential. Of course there is always room for improvement. For instance when it comes to conditions, Palloliitto could take a more active stance with the public sector and ensure that all towns have enough safe futsal pitches for the players. In Finland there isn't a single outdoors futsal pitch for example.
Could Finland qualify for a major futsal tournament soon?
That is the dream and we strongly believe in it. The last couple of qualifiers under Mićo Martić have been extremely close. In the next Euro qualifiers our team will be strong and we will be tactically more mature than before. We also hope that more than one individual national team player gets a chance to play professionally in the top leagues in Europe. That would make us even more prepared to play against the best countries in the world.