Kobbie Mainoo, Micah Hamilton and the Manchester Futsal club that helps develop Premier League stars

When you watch Micah Hamilton’s first goal for Manchester City, scored on his senior debut in the Champions League in December, there are traces of his futsal roots.

“Manipulating that ball, getting a yard on the defender, as you blinked he was gone,” Hamilton’s dad, Parley, tells The Athletic. “I think he shifted it twice, the defender moved one way and then it was like, ‘Where’s he gone?’.

“The futsal has stood him in good stead when developing those softer skills, the confidence to manipulate the ball. It’s given him the added skills other players don’t really have. All across Europe, the Spanish, the Dutch, Brazilians, too, futsal has always been in their game.”

Hamilton is just one of several players currently in the professional football academy system to have developed their skills on Manchester’s futsal courts. Manchester Futsal’s courts, to be precise, where these players started out.

City’s Callum Doyle, on loan at Leicester City, and Shea Charles, sold to Southampton for an initial £10.5million last summer, are also among the more high-profile players. United youngsters including Amir Ibragimov, Rhys Bennett and England’s latest senior international call-up, Kobbie Mainoo, also played there for a couple of years. Mainoo, the Manchester United midfielder who made his England debut against Brazil, is a good friend of Hamilton’s as a result.

Manchester City are interested in incorporating futsal for their girls’ academy, too, something United have already done.

Football fans will probably have, at best, a vague idea of what futsal actually is. It is a bit like five-a-side but different: indoor but with no walls, a big emphasis on close control and individual battles and played with a ball that’s smaller, heavier and less bouncy than a football.

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Hamilton (Pedja Milosavjlevic/AFP via Getty Images)

Former United youngster Zidane Iqbal explains it well: “It’s a really tight pitch and the ball’s different, it’s four against four (plus goalkeepers), it’s always one versus one against your man. There’s a lot of ball manipulation and beating your man.”

Iqbal was talking to MUTV, United’s in-house television channel, about how he had risen through the ranks after joining the club at nine years old. “I used to play at Manchester Futsal,” he volunteered. “That helped me a lot.”

Amari Moses also started playing with Manchester Futsal at the age of six and still plays now, at 15, when his schedule with Everton allows.

“Futsal is a big part of his life,” Amari’s father, Phil, tells The Athletic.

“In football and social ways, futsal is probably a good 25 to 30 per cent of the player that he is. A lot of stuff he’s learned in futsal does translate to the bigger game.”

For all that Manchester Futsal has achieved over the years, creating an environment where top Premier League academies are happy to send their players might rank as its toughest.

There is an enormous level of competition between rival football academy coaches, scouts and directors when it comes to attracting the best players from the area. Therefore there is suspicion around who might be trying to poach their talents.

Yet United, City and Everton, plus several others in the north west, have come to appreciate the benefits of futsal in Manchester. They do not have to worry about losing any of their prized assets while on somebody else’s turf.

“The nature of the city of Manchester is that players will arrive here from all around the world, they will have experienced futsal, grown up with it and they will navigate to us,” Simon Wright, CEO of Manchester Futsal says. “That’s where the pull is, regardless of the football clubs or academies.”

“I think that neutrality fits for us right now because our focus is on being a futsal player and the clubs see it and understand it. We’ve got good relationships with the two big powerhouses as well as a scattering of other football academies in the region and I guess that shows the benefits of our environment.”

Futsal, though, is more than just a development tool for professional football. It is a sport in its own right and with training sessions or competitions being held every night of the week across different sites in Manchester, there is something for people of all ages and abilities.

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Moses playing for Manchester Futsal (Manchester Futsal)

If it can be hard to pin down what futsal actually is, it is harder still to understand Manchester Futsal’s role within it.

“We changed the name from Manchester Futsal Club to Manchester Futsal because it’s not just the club, it’s everything around it,” Sam Richardson, head of performance and first-team manager, says.

Wright, Richardson and academy director Ilya Ovechkin set up Manchester Futsal Club, as it was then, in 2006 as they searched for ways to play football. But they are not just running a club — they run the actual futsal structure in Manchester itself.

There is still no permanent ‘home’ for their various teams. Over the years they have fought to persuade existing arenas to put down futsal court markings. One such arena is Manchester’s famous cycling velodrome, where Team GB Olympic gold medallists Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny used to whizz around the pitches during sessions.

Despite that, the men’s team have become one of the strongest in the country, currently in a title fight at the top of the National Futsal Series. Win that and they will have the opportunity to qualify for the Champions League, where teams like Barcelona, Sporting Lisbon and Anderlecht rule the roost.

There is also a youth programme with 150 children on the books. Around 40 of these are on the books of professional academies.

Richardson says: “If the clubs understand the value of that, there must be some value.”

There is frustration in his words because Manchester Futsal, like other clubs in the country, feel abandoned by the FA, who cut previous funding worth just over £1million per year during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Top European futsal clubs have annual budgets of roughly £2.5m, while Manchester Futsal’s is roughly £25,000.

“We’ve seen all of these different waves of the FA being behind it, launching a new strategy. We’ve seen every twist and turn,” Wright says.

Ovechkin chips in: “Our immune system is used to it!”

The FA set up the small-sided committee in 2007, focused on five-a-side and futsal, which was then pulled around a decade ago. In 2018, the federation launched a strategy aiming to make futsal “the indoor game of choice in England” and to commercialise the sport through a broadcast deal with BT Sport (now TNT Sport). A sponsorship deal with Pokemon was agreed in 2019, but the picture has changed yet again since the pandemic, with England Futsal the latest FA scheme.

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Doyle and Hamilton (back row, left and middle) playing for Manchester Futsal (Manchester Futsal)

“In December 2022, we announced the launch of a new partnership with England Futsal, an independent venture with the aim of providing long-term stability and growth for Futsal in England,” a statement from the FA says.

The governing body says this provides support for coaches and referees, a National Youth Futsal Cup and the introduction of an under-19 men’s team. There is also “FA approval and endorsement to enter the senior England Futsal Teams in upcoming UEFA and FIFA competitions, based on the programme being funded and delivered by England Futsal”.

This, according to the brains behind Manchester Futsal, is not going to be enough. “It’s like they’re pushing it out to England Futsal but still having influence,” Wright says.

“And what’s the budget of that?” Ovechkin enquires, wryly. Wright answers: “Nothing.”

The FA communicated to clubs in February that it is not putting in any money itself, meaning England Futsal has been charged with bringing in the £500,000 required to fund the re-establishment of the England men’s, women’s and under-19 England teams.

“It’s almost trying to set us up for failure a little bit, to say that if you can’t do it then the sport wasn’t really popular anyway,” Wright says. “That’s the sort of political thing we’ve got at the minute. ‘If you find the money, great, carry on, why do you need our investment?’.”

If that money cannot be raised through sponsorships, it will require the players or their families to chip in roughly £5,000 each, which would cover the cost of flights, hotels, a sports scientist and a physio.

“The interesting thing about the England team coming back, even though it is not the same structure as before, players are coming back,” Richardson says. “When it left, lots of people left the game, but now they’re seeing that England has come back, so obviously that has value. If it’s fully funded, there’s even more value in it.

“For me, the biggest thing is that it’s a missed opportunity. We’ve got players that are coming in and they might not be retained in football, not enjoying football, loads of different reasons, whether they are academy players or not, so there’s an opportunity to play a game that’s still under the FA banner that is still classed as a type of football. So you can still retain players within the sport that you’re looking after, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be football.”

The parents of the Premier League’s academy hopefuls agree about the value to their sons.

“Amir has always been recognised for his physicality and pace on the field, so we wanted to improve his technique and quick decision-making on the ball,” Cherim Ibragimov, father of United youngster Amir, says. “Futsal has helped him with that massively.”

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United’s Ibragimov (Manchester Futsal)

Phil Moses, though, explains that not everybody understands. “We were abroad on a tour with Everton and I was trying to explain to this coach how futsal has really developed Amari and this was a professional academy coach who just thought it was like five-a-side.

“But five-a-side and futsal are two completely different sports. They just don’t understand it and without that understanding, it’s always going to be the parents or the community in that futsal family who try to keep it going.”

While futsal cannot hope to emulate the exposure and riches of professional football, it does have its place within the game and also as an outlet in its own right, especially for those who tend to enjoy it more than its more popular cousin.

“The first question the parents ask is, ‘My kid loves it, but is there money or a career?’,” Ovechkin says. “We’re trying to build our club so hopefully in five or 10 years we can give you that, and that’s what we aspire to, but if we can showcase that there is a futsal Premier League or a national team, they can think, ‘You know what, I enjoy this, I am suited to this, I’m going to enjoy it’.”

(Top photo: Manchester Futsal and Getty Images))

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