August 30, 2009
From News and Observer

Futsal finds a footing in the Triangle

Fest shows off soccer variant

RALEIGH -- The few people who wandered into Dorton Arena on Saturday seemed puzzled by what they were seeing: a game that looked like soccer on a surface about the size of a basketball court.

But futsal -- a sport the players say is a faster, more intense version of soccer -- is increasingly popular in North Carolina.

The Copa del Pueblo tournament is part of the annual La Fiesta del Pueblo celebration that began Saturday and continues today at the State Fairgrounds. This is the first year the fiesta has included futsal.

"It's a better developmental game," said Darius Ejlali, president of the N.C. Adult Soccer Association, who single-handedly organized and marketed this weekend's tournament. "It forces skill and teamwork. You see a lot of artistic athletes playing this game."

The futsal ball is heavier than a soccer ball. Unlike soccer, only five players per side can play at once, but a team can make unlimited substitutions at any time. There is no slide tackling, and halves are only 20 minutes, compared to 45 in soccer.

Ejlali said the average player touches the ball 200 percent more than a soccer player.

"I like that it's such a fast game," said Ricardo Barandiaran, 24, of Raleigh, whose team was knocked out of the tournament Saturday. "The ball doesn't bounce too much. It's just intense."

Spectators can pay an extra $2 for an entire day of futsal when they buy admission to Fiesta del Pueblo, an annual fundraising event to benefit the state's Latino community. It features indoor and outdoor games and inflatables for kids, live music, exhibits and carnival food.

The tournament began in June and is comprised of 14 adult teams and six youth teams that advanced through regional tournaments in Durham, Greensboro, Fayetteville and Charlotte. The winning team in the adult division will take home $5,000 tonight at the futsal awards ceremony following the adult championship game.

Ejlali said futsal started in the 1930s and is common in countries where soccer is the national pastime. In the U.S., its popularity has recently skyrocketed among Hispanic communities in Northeastern states.

There is no futsal league in Raleigh; area players must go to Durham or Greensboro. But Ejlali hopes that will change soon.

"I want to create a large audience and build a tradition here," he said. "I'm just waiting for Raleigh to catch wind."