What if we applied futsal rules to football?


The last year and a half for me has been an absolute rollercoaster. We went from creating a club from thin air to playing on BT Sport within five months. Now, we have three teams, two women and one men. And I find myself coaching at the first and second tiers of women's futsal, and the third tier of men's futsal. Our players, initially brought on by mild intrigue, are fully committed futsal players that openly prefer it to football.


The reason for the preference boils down to fun. As a condensed version of football, there's more of the good stuff, and less of the bad. More goals, more skills, and more involvement from each individual. Rolling subs allows for plenty of rest, and means even if you don't start, you'll still get good game time. Unlike football, where some players are condemned to the final ten or fifteen minutes when the game is already over. Players aren't stuck in positions, as the fluid nature of futsal rotations mean that everybody is always involved, and you're never too far away from having a shot. Even three or four goal leads aren't quite the same guarantee of a win, and goals can come at any second.


As a spectacle, it's why I feel futsal will be more successful in the Olympics at converting people with little to no interest in football. The games are shorter, there's no time wasting, there's more action, and because of the constant proximity to the goals, the game is always exciting. In so many ways, it is the rules that make it so. The constraints of the game affect how the game is played. Us football fans regularly bemoan having travelled the length of the country on a cold day to witness two groups of millionaires stroll their way through a boring 0-0 draw.


Personally, I've come to enjoy football considerably less over the last couple of years. Teams go a goal up, park the bus, and time waste their way to the final whistle. Every team does it. But it does make it unwatchable at times. Negative, boring, anti-football, with the purpose of grinding out results to achieve more sponsorship money via league position at the end of the season. One which I despise immensely is the foul on the halfway line to stop a counter attack. Quick shirt tug or trip, kick the ball away, confront the ref, waste sixty seconds and allow everyone to recover. I cannot stand it. As fans, we've been denied the exciting part, whether it's attacking or defending, the breakaways and counters have you on the edge of your seat.


Every now and again, there is talk of adjusting the rules of football. Whether it's modifying extra time and penalties, concussion subs, allowing kick-offs to go forward, and using a stop clock. Some are useful, some are purely cosmetic. What I'm going to do here is look at futsal rules, with examples, and look at what effect they may have if applied to football.


Stop Clock

The Rule: Two halves of twenty minutes of play. The clock counts down and will stop when the ball is out of play, such as when a goal is scored, a free-kick awarded, or the ball exits the field of play.

The Effect: Teams get a proper forty minute match. Rather than referees guessing how much time to add on, we know exactly how much has been played (or how much time remains) because it says so on the scoreboard. Time wasting is impossible. The clock will wait for you. It takes around thirty to thirty-five minutes to play a twenty minute half.

My Recommendation: I want this. Players aren't feigning injury and seeking treatment to run down the clock. Players don't take forever to get the ball when it goes out. The losing team doesn't lose the psychological battle because they are getting frustrated, knowing the clock is still ticking and the referee does nothing about it. We've all seen four minutes of injury time actually be ninety seconds of ball rolling time because of the pointless subs, fake injuries, and slow walks to retrieve the ball.


Fans get their money's worth. The ball is in play in a football game usually around sixty to sixty-five minutes. When Tony Pulis' Stoke City were at their peak, the ball would be in play often as low as fifty-five or even fifty minutes, due to all the drying of the balls and moving everyone forward as the set-piece was launched into the box. Another effect is that the losing team plays smarter. They know they will get the allotted time. They don't take the bait and make rash decisions.


Sure, football matches would be two or three hours long. So that's why it would make sense to play a sixty or seventy minute game. An hour and a half of ball rolling time would be exhausting, make the players more susceptible to injury, and so many late goals would be scored because of mistakes and terrible decisions rather than any great attacking play or display of skill.


Four Second Restarts

The Rule: Every free-kick, kick-in, or goal throw, the attacking team has to restart the game within four seconds, or the ball is awarded to the opposition. This isn't from when the ball goes out, but from when the ball is retrieved, and the player in a position to start the game.

The Effect: Although some players do slow the game down in their laboured retrievals, it's to affect the tempo, or allow teammates to get into position, because with the clock stopped, time cannot be wasted. The indoor courts help, as any ball cleared out of play won't go far anyway. The game is more continuous, with shorter breaks between plays.

My Recommendation: I love this, and would adopt it into football immediately. I have used it in football training for years as a means to increase training tempo and coerce players into seeing opportunities to play quick. Get the ball back in play before the opposition recovers and reorganises!


Many football teams make good tactical use of their ball kids. Again, it's infuriating, and it has clearly been poorly monitored by the governing bodies. With clocks stopped, it's not an issue. In order to keep the game flowing, football would need more balls around the edges so that the games continue to be played at a high tempo. No strolling back into position, on attack or defence. The team that reacts quickest to transitions will dominate the game.


Foul Count

The Rule: When a team makes their fifth foul of the half, a buzzer sounds. What this means is that any subsequent foul, regardless of where it occurs on the court, regardless of how innocuous it is, will result in a 10m penalty. Normal penalties are 6m, so it acts like an unopposed free-kick. Like if instead of a penalty, you were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the box, but the defending team could only put their keeper in the way. The sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth foul etc. would also be a 10m penalty. The fouls are reset back to zero at half time.

The Effect: The game is a lot cleaner. Futsal doesn't really have any thugs whose only role is to clatter into the more talented opponents with the reducer type tackles. You can't leave a foot in on an opponent because you're annoyed. You can't tug a shirt to prevent a counter attack. Players become a lot more economical with their fouls, because they know too many results in the 10m penalty. Promising attacks aren't halted by some cynical donkey taking one for the team. My Recommendation: The first two rules were probably fairly easy sells. Not difficult to implement. They make common sense, and I see a growing movement within football to implement something similar to the first two suggestions. This one, however, although I am strongly in favour of, would be harder to sell. I'm not too sure on how. Maybe more fouls because there are more players and there is longer time in football? Would eight or nine be about right? And then the kick itself, I'm thinking anywhere along the eighteen yard line, or in the D. It has to be a shot. It cannot be a cross or a pass.


I think it makes the game more exciting, from two different perspectives. If it's still early in the half and a team has already accumulated four or five fouls, it changes the way they defend, and it changes how an opponent attacks. It has a visible effect on the strategy of the match. It's also exciting because you know the attack will happen, and the way for the defence to solve it is with marking and positioning, rather than an innocuous foul, buying them time to recover to defend the free-kick.


Rolling Subs

The Rule: Players can enter and exit the field of play as many times as they want during the game. Subs can occur at any moment in the match, even during live play. The player exiting the court must be completely over the line before the next player can come on. If spotted by the eagle-eyed referees, it can be punished with a yellow card, because for a second or two, a team would have an extra player on the court. All subs must occur through the gateway marked out in front of the team's bench. As a result, futsal teams switch benches at half-time, but I think due to the size of a football pitch, bench switching in football wouldn't be as necessary from this perspective as it is in futsal.

The Effect: Teams can sustain a higher intensity game for longer. Much like ice hockey or basketball, players play for a small number of minutes at a time, before subbing out. Futsal is more intense than football, placing more anaerobic demands on the athlete. There's less time to rest and recover during game play, so players sub in and out to stay fresh. The strength and depth of a bench can often win a game, because a team is able to sustain their intensity and quality for longer. Teams can also make more significant tactical shifts, because they can sub large parts or even their entire team. Brief the bench about a new idea, and then replace all five on the court with a different line-up, using different tactics. In football, whether it's three or five permanent subs, the changes that can be made from the bench are considerably less significant because it is one player out of eleven, against another eleven. Subbing in futsal can have a much more profound impact than in football.

My Recommendation: I'm not convinced about this one in football, although I would certainly like to experiment with it and see what happens. Some recreational leagues, and pretty much all youth leagues use rolling subs, but this is often done from the perspective of awarding all players some game time, rather than any great tactical shifts employed to win games. The constraints of football, with the offside rule, mean that the space footballers play in is much more condensed. Without offside, the game would be so stretched, requiring more running and bursts of energy. This is where rolling subs would be more useful in football.


Add into the mix goal throws rather than goal kicks for when the ball is shot behind the goal. If the keeper can only throw and not kick to restart the game, this gives the keeper around a thirty or forty yard radius in which they can successfully deliver the ball to a teammate. This encourages the defending team to press higher, like the fielding team moving closer to the batter in baseball or cricket if it is known the batter is weak. With a four second restart rule imposed, the in-possession team has only a couple of seconds to organise into a build-out shape, making the high press of the defending team even more attractive in this situation. Can you see how such constraints would shape behaviour?


The problem in football, which leads to anti-competitiveness, is the big clubs have billions to spend. Nowadays, the discrepancy between the top clubs and lower clubs in the Premier League is at its widest, and is only growing wider still. Twenty or thirty years ago, there were still teams with more talent than others. That's natural. If we compare the two squads of Nottingham Forest and Manchester City, in the before times, Man City may have been a stronger team, but a combined XI would still feature players from both teams. A modern combined XI would be simply eleven City players. All of Man City's eleven starters are better than all of Forest's eleven starters. The case could be made for City's second string. If a Man City B team still beats a Forest A team, then allowing for more subs would only help City further. They could bring on any of their vast array of footballing weapons to continue their relentless assault on Nottingham Forest. Less subs edges the odds slightly back in the other direction. So rolling subs in football, at the highest level, would only work if there were some kind of equalising rules, such as a salary cap. Or else it's just another way for richer teams to dominate.


If it were to be implemented, however, I think we'd find what are called "special teams" being formed. Like in a lot of the American sports, a group of players, or even an entire line-up, is brought on for a few seconds or minutes, to play a certain way, or execute a specific strategy. Using the Stoke City of Pulis once again, if they were to get a free-kick or corner, any player under 6'2" would be subbed off briefly, and replaced by big guys who can challenge in the air. That might be the only useful skill they have, and so they are subbed back out again moments later, when the phase of play has changed. You might send in a handful of players that will press for five or ten minutes. You might feel it's best to keep the ball, so on goes your best passers of the ball. Football would become more tactical by a factor of ten if rolling subs were implemented in the same vain as futsal.


Goal Throws

The Rule: When the attacking team kicks the ball behind the by-line, such as a shot missing the goal and going wide, instead of a goal kick inside the six-yard box, it is a throw. It can be any type of throw, but it has to be released by the hands, and released within four seconds.

The Effect: Not sure that this affects the game too much when compared to football, as the maximum court length is 40m long. Sure, it's possible to kick further than you throw, but realistically, every goalkeeper could throw from their own D past the by-line at the opposite end. Where a football goalkeeper may be able to boot a goal kick two thirds up the pitch, a futsal goalkeeper could hit pretty much any tile on the court. This makes teams spread out a lot more because any player could be reached anywhere on the court.

My Recommendation: What this would do in football is severely restrict the team in possession to the amount of space they can occupy based on the maximum length of delivery for the. Calling it a 40m radius for the keeper to throw (using a round number to paint a picture), all the opposition players would close in. Like when playing batting sports and the fielders know the batter can't hit far. it would condense the game. Or in youth football, when the goalkeeper cannot kick goal kicks very far or accurately, provoking the opposition to camp on the edge of the penalty area. However, if the goal throw rule were implemented in football with the offside rule too, it would create a breeding ground for all sorts of interesting and innovative plays. I could imagine a keeper tossing the ball up for a teammate to boot it. With no offside, it would force the defensive line deeper towards their own goal, creating more space between the lines You would hope some of the tactical brains on the cutting edge of football would create very elaborate plays under these futsal constraints.

If throwing was the only option for the keeper, taking goal throws rather than goal kicks, I think the game would look something like this. Condensed because the keeper won't be able to throw far.

If teammates are allowed to receive in the penalty area, like they can in football and futsal, and offsides were not in force, a quick toss up to a teammate who could boot it the whole way like a volley or dropkick, as shown by the red area.


No Offside

The Rule: No offside. Players can be literally anywhere on the court at any time.

The Effect: Players make a lot of blindside runs to receive in behind. Defenders have to communicate much more to track runs and be aware of opponents sneaking behind them. Opponents often screen the goalkeeper, occupying their line of sight, preventing them from clearly seeing the ball. The deepest defender is typically a lot closer to the keeper in futsal than in football, even when accounting for relevant distances. It's to prevent the ball over the top in behind. This gives the possession team little opportunity to play direct passes.

My Recommendation: Taking away offside from football would completely change the game as we know it. Players would be allowed to goal hang. This would change the shapes and formations teams use because they may defend with only eight or nine, leaving a couple players high in the opposition's half. Using a striker as a goal hanger, and therefore a sweeper or two to stay back and mark them, would also significantly change the demands placed upon individual positions. The direct and aerial nature of the game would make height a greater requirement, meaning the average height of players in these key positions would increase almost over night. Then centre-midfielders and wide players, or whichever positions you utilise to cover a lot of ground, would likely cover 33% more ground per game than previously.

In futsal, you'll often see the attacking team work a player into the corner, clear of the deepest defender. This player will likely hold the ball up and wait for support arrive to create a shot or a cross. The defending team drop to close the space, and allow space in front of them, denying the space between themselves and the goal. Due to the two lines surrounding the player in the corner, they are protected on two sides, making it a great area for them to shield the ball.


Kick-Ins

The Rule: When the ball exits the court over the touchline, it must be put back into play via a kick-in, rather than a throw-in. The ball must be on the line and stationary. Opponents have to be at a distance greater than five metres. The taker has four seconds to play the ball, or else it is awarded to the other team.

The Effect: If you get it right, you can reach quite far with a kick-in. Many teams have routines planned, but remember that you only have four seconds to play with. Because of the ability to reach anywhere on the court, the game spreads out, and we begin to see players use decoy and double movements to create space for themselves and others. The video below is a good example of that.

My Recommendation: Nah. Football would become way more direct. Likely even unwatchable. It would end up being closer to NFL or rugby, relying on long punts into areas dangerous areas. Although I think we should consider this at the young ages. I've talked before about removing instances where heading happens, than removing heading in youth football. Throws with kids instantly put the ball in the air, making the head the most effective body part to use. Playing on a smaller pitch, with smaller numbers, live I've been whining about for years, prevents the height and distance of a hoofed ball, instead limiting it to a clipped pass at best. The only way kick-ins could work in adult football would be if there were sufficient balls placed near the touchline, starting the four second count, or else teams would be slow to retrieve the ball on purpose, allowing teammates to organise in the box, treating every kick-in in the opposition half like a corner. And if we maintain no offsides, as there are no offsides in futsal, and now offsides from throw-ins in football, it really would encourage every kick to be like a corner. How much fun would that be?


Back Pass

The Rule: Likely one of the more complicated to understand. The keeper can come out of the area, and receive the ball, just like in football. However, you can only use the keeper once per possession. If the keeper has played the ball out, you cannot go back to them until the other team has touched the ball. If you steal the ball from the opponent, you can pass back to your keeper, just like in football, and they cannot pick the ball up, just like in football. The only difference here is that if the keeper has possession of the ball, the only have four seconds in possession. A keeper not releasing the ball quick enough with the ball at their feet is the same punishment as taking too long on a restart. If the keeper dallies and takes more than four seconds, it is an indirect free-kick to the opposition. Easy to understand, right? Okay, good. Now none of that applies if the keeper has crossed the halfway line, and is in the opposition's half. All that only counts if the keeper is in the other half.

The Effect: It keeps the game 4v4 around the ball. Overuse of the keeper would make the game 5v4, and probably make it too easy for stronger teams to just dominate the game by keeping the ball after going a few goals up. The losing team would have to chase the game and would be baited into pressing high. This now makes a 5v4, playing full court, with no offside. It would be too easy to play in the free man behind the defence. Sometimes when keepers see an opportunity after making a save, they'll put the ball down and run with it. Getting over the halfway line within four seconds is pretty easy. Some teams will choose to play what is called a fly keeper. The keeper will intentionally position themselves high up the court as a team looks to overload the opposition in their own half. The risk here is that it leaves the goal open. If you lose possession, the goal is wide open with the opposition in possession and creates a mad scramble. Like in the video below.

In the example below, you'll see the keeper surge forward into the opposition half to join in with an attack. While she does that, another teammate has dropped into the goal.

My Recommendation: I wouldn't impose a restriction such as this in football. Although it would be funny. Modern keepers like Ederson and Neuer have added more depth and complexity to football, because their ability with their feet creates overloads in build up. Their tranquillity and skill in possession provides more ways for teams to build attacks, invite pressure to play through or over, receive when marked, and makes them less predictable because they can play long and short. If a football keeper only had four seconds before releasing the ball, even if it were at their feet, it would remove the need for the Neuer types. Teams would now build out of the back considerably less. And very few teams, if any, would send a keeper over the halfway line to join in with the attack. It's just too far. Football keepers are allowed to do it now anyway. a 5v4 is a greater overload than an 11v10. It's too risky and wouldn't pay off enough. That's why we only see keepers come up for corners in a desperate attempt to score a goal at the end of a game.


I hope this has been useful and informative. I am very much a fan of four second restarts and a stop clock in football. Plus the foul count. As I've said, time wasting and professional fouls just make football boring and unwatchable. 1-0 going into the 70th minute, and we know we're in for twenty minutes of cramp, shoes being tied, keepers switching the side they take the goal kick, walking to retrieve the ball, lap of honour substitutions, arguing with the referees, feigning injuries, and shirt tugging to prevent counter attacks. With these adjustments to football, you'd get more football, and less nonsense. As someone who loves football, I'd certainly love to see more football.

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