Bird Brown: A love for futsal comes full circle

I have written many times about the moment I fell in love with the sport that has shaped my entire life.

It wasn’t soccer that I fell in love with at that moment. That was something that developed over years of being involved in the game as a player, coach, and always a fan. The game that stole my heart that fateful day on the playgrounds of Escola Americana was futebol de salao.


In the late 1800s, the man that came to be known as the father of Brazilian football, an Englishman named Charles Miller, traveled to Sao Paulo, Brazil, with a couple of soccer balls, a rules book in his suitcase and a dream of spreading the game that he loved to his new home. The 11-a-side game took off like wildfire and before long the facilities were overburdened and a smaller version, played on a hard court with a small “dead” ball was created.

The game became known as futebol de salao with its own specific set of rules and leagues and began to be played in every corner of one of the world’s largest countries.

For the entire three years that my family lived in Rio, I never once played a game of soccer on a grass field. The first three years of my development were on hardcourts like concrete outdoor basketball courts or gymnasium type hardwoods. The game was played with a very small ball, size 2, that was designed to be heavy and flat to stay on the surface as opposed to a regular outdoor ball that was slightly larger and has more bounce to it.

We played every day at school with our American classmates and on the streets of Rio with our neighborhood friends when we got home. We played with kids our own age and kids of all ages. We played in formal games with our class against other classes and occasionally got a chance to play against other schools.

We would play against the kids on the street, and sometimes the kids on the next street over.

Basically, we just played. And played a LOT.

Very little coaching. Very little structure. Very little equipment. No uniforms or backpacks or team gear. I’d say no fancy shoes, but that’s the one thing I remember that was a “must have.”

A shoe designed only for futebol, with tiny, flat rubber spikes on the bottom and the coolest way to tie your laces of any I’ve seen since. After lacing them up through the eyelets and the tongue, we’d wrap them around the back of our Achilles and back around before tying the knot.

Throw on my red and black Flamengo socks and that’s all I needed.

When we started the Westminster Soccer Club men’s program (what would later evolve in to the Westminster Wolves and expanded to a youth program) shortly after graduating from college in 1985, it began on the gym floors at the Longwell Avenue Armory with cones as our goals and a small futebol de salao ball we could only find in the Matt Godak rugby catalog.

Remember ordering from catalogs?

A little more than a decade ago, futebol de salao was reintroduced in to my life in the form of futsal. Futsal evolved from futebol de salao, but has a more international appeal with a larger and slightly more active ball than the one I grew up on.

My middle son’s team was invited to play in a league at the Park School which we ended up winning before moving on to and winning the State Cup. We then lost in the regional final to the same team we beat in the State Cup final.

Since then I have been part of five Maryland Futsal State Cup championship teams and four Northeast Regional finalists as a head or assistant coach. Next weekend, my youngest son and his teammates — the last of the Wolves — get a shot at their fifth state championship and the following week seeking the elusive regional title in Atlantic City in their swan song of their youth soccer and futsal careers.


Even my Celtic 2001s will join in the fun and if things go as planned could very well see each other in the finals on Saturday.

There are many who don’t see the benefits of playing futsal and how the skills learned on the hardcourts can transfer to the larger, 11-a-side game.

Among the players that have been a part of this squad over the years, every kid has received some sort of post-season honors in their high school careers, including all-state, all-county, and all-conference awards and many will take their game to the next level next year at every level of play.

Hank Steinbrecher, former Secretary General of U.S. Soccer and current member of U.S. Futsal’s National Board of Directors once said, “For those who know the game and have coached it, futsal is infinitely better preparation for the outdoor game … futsal really does teach a higher level of skill than whacking the ball off the wall.”