Nothing comes close to the "beautiful game" -- soccer played outdoors on a patch of grass measuring 120 yards by 75 yards -- for sheer artistry and enjoyment. But when temperatures drop, the elements grow foul and the game must move indoors, the Thunder Soccer Club has a message for its constituents: No walls!
The western Howard County youth club has embraced futsal, the international version of indoor soccer, which -- though little known even to many soccer enthusiasts in this country -- has state, regional and national championships in the United States, as well as its own World Cup.
In the more familiar American indoor soccer, sometimes described as human pinball, players can slam the ball off dasherboards, adding maybe hundreds of "passes" during a game. In futsal, played on a basketball court, five players must keep the deadened, smaller ball in motion -- on the floor, mainly, thus requiring both ball-control skills and the ability to move into open positions away from a teammate looking to pass the ball.
Clifford Walcott, a new director of the Thunder club, is leading the club's effort to popularize futsal as a training tool and as a way to have fun.
"I started seeing futsal as an excellent tool, as opposed to the more familiar indoor game for our club players to train in the off-season," said Walcott, a native of Guyana and girls soccer coach at Pallotti High School in Laurel.
"I'm going to start from the first rung of the ladder. I want the kids to get excited about playing futsal without the walls, playing to a limited area, getting a feel for that heavy-weighted ball. After they get excited, then we'll advance to the more formal thing, introducing the rules."
To get his program going, Walcott rented the gymnasium at Bushy Park Elementary for 13 weeks, starting two weeks ago, with sessions for different groups, starting at 1 p.m. While the focus is building interest within his club, Walcott will not turn away any young player, though he will ask participants to help defray costs, perhaps $1 per player per session.
Walcott acknowledged that he will be learning along with the youngsters as the program builds, saying he is open to ideas to improve the educational value of the workouts and make them more fun.
"I'm democratic about these things," said Walcott, who has coached the Bay City Premier to the state futsal semifinals. "This is for kids, American kids who want to get better [at the game of soccer]. This is open to anyone who is willing to come out here on a Sunday and play.
"Maybe, we'll do a little championship thing at the end. And then next year, because we'll know how it works, we'll do a more organized league schedule."
His start-up plan is modest. He hopes for six teams of at least five players each, and he's starting with, for teen-age players, co-ed teams drawn from the Thunder's travel squads.
"I did that on purpose so the boys would want to be here. That's a marketing ploy, if you want to call it that."
Walcott has the enthusiastic support of the Thunder board, which has committed to find more facilities should the program outgrow Bushy Park.
"This is the closest thing to playing outdoors," said Glenwood's Ken Boras, a board member and founder of the club in 1992. "Playing off the walls like the Blast does is not what we're about."
Turnout for the first two weeks of the program has been light because of poor weather, but the participants seemed enthusiastic and understanding of the point of the exercise.
"Futsal helps me a lot technically," said Michael Walter, 14, a defensive midfielder for the under-15 Thunder Premier team and River Hill High.
"I like it a lot, because it gets you fit and, at the same time, helps your game a lot. It's not just all running. It's a lot of technical, small-sided [meaning two- and three-player combinations] stuff. If you're in tight situations, you've got to be able to get out of there. It helps a lot outdoors. Outdoors, you do a lot of tactical stuff, but in here it's all technical, just getting a lot of touches on the ball."