Indoor football is an area of the game’s history that soccer historians have generally neglected, notably in Europe, where outdoor football has a long-established presence and a comprehensively recorded history. We document the development of indoor football throughout England and the world in the post-war period.
Before FIFA decided to take over the indoor game in the late 1980s and promote the Uruguayan version of the game (Futsal), it is clear that indoor football was widely played, both as a recreational activity and in competitive tournaments at a level right up to senior professional clubs. However, the situation regarding the arrangements for these games can best be described as localized. Essentially local rules applied to almost all aspects of the game. This included the number of players per side (five, six, seven, or even eleven-a-side), duration of games, and the method for deciding drawn matches.
While in South America, the rules of play were more coordinated, based on those developed in Uruguay or Brazil. In Europe, rules were often specific to a particular tournament. As a result, indoor football was known by a variety of different names in different countries. Some examples were Fútbol de Salón (Uruguay, from which the name Futsal derives), Futebol de Salão (Brazil), Hallenfussball (Germany and Austria), Football de Salle (France and Belgium), and Indoor Football in England.
There had been experiments with indoor soccer matches in the United States from the 1880s. As early as 1885, a touring team from Canada played three games against Clark’s ONT. The games were six-a-side and took place at the Olympian Roller Skating Rink on Broadway, New York. Several tournaments involving professional clubs took place between the two World Wars and into the 1950s. Indoor football developed a relatively high profile in some South American countries, including Uruguay, where Juan Carlos Ceriani developed rules for indoor football in 1930. In Brazil, an indoor version of the game appeared in São Paulo in the 1940s. The games were developed amongst Christian youth organizations.
Indoor Football Rules
The main drive towards establishing formal rules and structures for indoor football came from Brazil. As a result, a series of regional federations formed to oversee the indoor game emerged during the 1950s, starting with Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro, formed in 1954. In 1959 an inter-state championship was established. A common rulebook was also issued in 1954 in an attempt to unify the rules of play.
International organisation came in the following decade, with the formation of the Confederação Sul Americana de Futebol de Salão in 1969 and the Federação Internacional de Futebol de Salão (FIFUSA) in Brazil two years later. The first president of FIFA was João Havelange, then president of the CBD and later to serve as FIFA president.
In Europe, the picture was less clear. In Austria, the Wiener Stadthalle Turnier was first held in 1959. Apart from a gap of one year, the competition has been held including the country’s top professional sides.
Indoor Football Tournaments
By the 1970s, tournaments were a regular part of the football calendar in Germany, Italy, Sweden, and Switzerland. For example, there was a tournament known as the Nacka Memorial, after Lennart “Nacka” Skoglund, the former international. It took place in Stockholm from 1977 until 1990, when it was canceled due to the deteriorating behavior of spectators. In addition, there was a national 11-a-side championship (the Tipshallsvenskan) from 1986 to 1995 and a national five-a-side championship (the Svenkst Mästerskap) from 1994 to 2005 before Futsal takes over.
Information about other parts of the world is somewhat limited. However, it’s known that the Paton & Baldwins club of Tasmania introduced indoor football to Australia in July 1949 using rules similar to those played in England and Scotland at the time.
The development of indoor football in England falls into three distinct periods. From the late 1940s until 1960 was essentially driven by the Central Council of Physical Recreation (CCPR) with support from newspapers including the Daily Record and the London Evening Standard.
A second phase from the mid- 1960s through until the mid-1980s followed. The driving force in this period was the Beaverbrook group of newspapers, with support from the CCPR and later the Sports Council. The third period of development during the 1980s was essentially part of a process by which the Football League hoped to restore ‘family values’ to the English game.
Introduction Of The Game In England
There seems no trace of indoor football in England before the Second World War, although this does not mean that it was not present. A version of indoor soccer was played at a gymnasium in the Dumfriesshire town of Kirkcudbright in the mid-1930s. It appears to have been the version that the CCPR developed in the late 1940s and early ’50s. The CCPR was heavily involved in promoting indoor and outdoor sporting and recreational activities just after the war. They mainly targeted young people who had left school. Indoor football was one of many indoor and outdoor recreational activities that it promoted.
The CCPR was (and is) a voluntary organization comprising representatives from a range of national sporting and youth organizations, with the objective of promoting all forms of physical recreation to those who had left school. Two individuals were significant in promoting indoor football: Stanley Rous, secretary of the Football Association and Chair of the CCPR, and George McPartlin, technical director of the CCPR.
The first recorded indoor soccer event in Britain was the match between Great Britain and the Rest of the World. It was to celebrate the return of the four ‘Home Nations’ to FIFA in June 1947. In the two weeks preceding the match, they held football contests, including a five-a-side tournament involving Airdrieonians, Celtic, Hibernian, Partick Thistle, Queen’s Park, Rangers, St Mirren, and Third Lanark. A football tennis tournament involving the same clubs. Daily coaching sessions for local schoolchildren and youth groups. The five-a-side football was immensely popular, attracting huge crowds to the final. Rangers and Hibernian could not be separated after two periods of extra time. Hibernian won the football tennis defeating Queen’s Park in the final.
The CCPR brought indoor soccer to London 12 months later, when Football League champions Arsenal played against the Rest of England.
The CCPR then staged an Indoor Football Festival at Empress Hall, Earl’s Court in 1949. This was very similar to the event that had taken place in Glasgow two years earlier. Eight teams entered: Brentford, Charlton Athletic, Chelsea, Derby County, Romford, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United, and Wolverhampton Wanderers, competing at five-a-side football, soccer tennis, and individual skills for an overall title. The football tournament was played on a knockout basis, five minutes each way followed by one minute extra time if necessary. There was, however, no positive outcome with Derby and Wolves still tied at 1-1 after extra time in the final. Chelsea won the football tennis and the overall competition, while Eddie Baily (Tottenham) won the individual skills title.
The Empress Pool was also the venue for a third event when Brentford, Charlton, Fulham, and Tottenham took part in a tournament held in May 1951.
In May 1954, ‘the Evening Standard unofficial London Five-a-Side Championships were held. Seven teams took part, the seven London clubs in Divisions One and Two, with the tournament taking a knockout format. Charlton were the winners, defeating Fulham, Brentford, and Tottenham to take the prize.
In 1959 the indoor football tournament stepped up a level. Stanley Rous persuaded the visiting Yugoslavia team (due to meet England the following day) to put out a side against Billy Wright’s All-Stars, the Yugoslavs winning 4-1. The Football League and Football Association now promoted the tournament.
The London Evening Standard tournament was revived in 1967. Again, West Ham were the winners, with Geoff Hurst netting a hat-trick in the final, just as he had done at the outdoor Wembley Stadium some 12 months previously to decide a competition of infinitely greater importance.
The Evening Standard’s sister paper, the Daily Express, came on board to launch what represents the most ambitious indoor five-a-side indoor tournament to date. The involvement of the Express might surprise modern readers, but at this time, the newspaper was indeed a powerful entity with a circulation figure of some 3.7 million.
National Indoor Football Tournament
While later tournaments run by the Express were termed ‘National,’ the 1968 version was indeed national, with the winners of eight regional qualifying rounds fighting it out at Wembley for the trophy.
At least 64 of the 92 Football League clubs entered (although only eight from the First Division) and 12 Scottish League clubs. The final attracted a below-capacity crowd of 6,000. However, no top-flight clubs were present in the last eight – there being one from the Fourth Division (Lincoln City), three from the Third (Gillingham, Grimsby Town, Peterborough United), three from the Second (Cardiff City, Charlton Athletic, Preston North End) plus Morton from the Scottish League. Charlton was the winner.
When the tournament re-emerged in November 1969, it was slightly different. A Scottish regional heat had been held again in April, providing Morton with a place in the finals. But the other eight clubs were invited. They included Swindon (Football League Cup winner), Manchester City (FA Cup winner), and Celtic and Rangers coming down from Scotland. Highlights of the tournament were televised by BBC 1 on Sportsnight. After that, the Express’ National Championships’ were invitation-only and invariably attracted the country’s leading clubs (except for Liverpool FC, who do not seem to have entered on any occasion). The Express newspaper organized the tournament themselves, although there was backing from the FA, Football League, BBC, and the CCPR (and the Sports Council in later years).
The tournament was always held in November, fitting in around midweek European, domestic and international matches. This provided welcome entertainment for television viewers when there was a minimal amount of football on the television schedules and capacity crowds.
The Express pushed for the inclusion of the tournament in the official FA and Football League calendars in the mid-1970s, but without success. Eventually, facing competition from the Football League’s Soccer Sixes tournaments, the Express brought their tournament to an end.
The domestic game of football was undergoing a series of major crises in the 1980s. They were principally linked to crowd violence and financial instability of many of the Football League’s clubs. This, in turn, led to the following changes in indoor football.
The Football League promoted its own brand of indoor football from 1982, called Soccer Sixes. They were desperate to take the game out of the hands of the hooligans and create a family-orientated brand.
There was plenty of US-style razzamatazz, with marching bands and majorettes on display. But no television coverage and only around 3,000 fans turned out. Nevertheless, the Football League decided the event had been a success. However, chairman Jack Dunnett’s comments were hardly enthusiastic: “It’s not football, but if it is entertainment the fan is looking for, then this is ideal.”
The tournament was sponsored by the Rover group, with a total of £10,000 prize money, £2,000 of which went to the winners. Birmingham City took the title, beating Wolves in the final.
Soccer Sixes continued at the NEC venue for two more years without ever really establishing itself. Atari, the video games company, sponsored the next tournament, and Courage Brewers, with the event, switched to two days and attracting television coverage from the BBC.
The death knell for the NEC as a venue came the following year when problems beset the tournament. On the first day, there was crowd trouble with spectators throwing coins and other objects, and even worse to follow. “Ammonia Thugs in NEC Riot” read the front-page headlines in the Birmingham Evening Mail, which went on to describe “a pitched battle between hooligans and police.” Then, to add insult to injury, the dressing rooms were broken into, and several members of the Birmingham City squad had their personal belongings stolen.
There was almost a two-year gap before the next Soccer Sixes event when the venue switched to Wembley Arena. This was for London clubs only.
To underline the struggle faced by Soccer Sixes to fit into the football calendar, there was another relaunch later that same year at Manchester’s G-MEX Arena, this time with sponsorship from Guinness, and, perhaps crucially for the sponsors, a television deal with the BBC. Graham Kelly, the Football League secretary, explained the role of Soccer Sixes in advance of the event, “We would like six-a-side soccer to be complementary to the major league game. A bit of fun to be enjoyed occasionally.” (Manchester Evening News, 10 December 1986)
The Manchester venue had a smaller capacity (5,500) than either Wembley Arena or the NEC (both in the region of 8,000), but the first tournament was a significant success. Oxford were the surprise winners, defeating Arsenal in the final. Ted Croker, the Football Association secretary, seemed to get a little carried away. He announced that the FA would be pressing FIFA to replace their official Futsal game with the Football League version, and there would be discussions with UEFA officials over the possibility of a Europe-wide competition.
Expanding Indoor Football
Neither proposal came to fruition, all though Soccer Sixes continued in Manchester until 1990. Despite attempts to expand the scope of the event in 1990 with a Transatlantic Challenge match when Baltimore Blast of the Major Indoor Soccer League defeated Oldham Athletic 6-1, there were no further tournaments. The main reason for this was the disappointment of both Football League officials and sponsors Guinness that several top clubs (Liverpool, Manchester United, and Tottenham) fielded less-than-full-strength squads.
Prize money, which was minimal for both the Express and Evening Standard tournaments, was substantial for Soccer Sixes, increasing from a total of £10,000 in 1982 to over £250,000 in 1988 when Charlton’s winning team netted £51,000. However, despite good support from the fans, Guinness felt they were not getting their money’s worth and did not continue their sponsorship.
Today indoor six-a-side football continues at a professional level with the Masters’ tournaments, with squads of players over 35 years of age selected by the PFA and competing in regional qualifying rounds leading to a national final.
The attraction of indoor football for spectators was the speed and skill on display, with the added incentive that the tournament was decided over one evening’s play, and the weather outside was of no importance.
Show Off Your Skills
Betting was a significant factor at tournaments through to the 1970s. The Evening Standard and Express published the odds on the teams in the lead-up to games. “Fast, furious football” was the order of the day, and it made for a good spectacle.
The players too appreciated the opportunity to show off their skills. The game seemed to suit ballplayers such as George Best, Laurie Cunningham, and Stan Bowles.
The rules for the Evening Standard and Express tournaments were essentially the same. No goal kicks, corners, or throw-ins, and the ball must be kept below head height. Only the goalkeeper is allowed in the penalty area. The goal size expanded as time progressed, from 18 feet wide to 22 feet, in a bid to make the proceedings more exciting. Times of matches varied but were usually between four and six minutes each way, with extra time and sudden death penalties then deciding the outcome. A shoot-out system was introduced for the final two Evening Standard tournaments in place of penalties.
Rules for Soccer Sixes were devised by the Football League, drawing more heavily on those in place in the Major Indoor Soccer League in the USA. There was no height restriction. Goal kicks and throw-ins were still out, but corner kicks were included. Unlimited substitutes were allowed, and a sin bin for offenders was introduced. A zonal system meant that goals could only be scored within certain areas of the playing area. The rules also introduced penalties for playing the ball across the zones, ensuring that moves were built up and there were no route one tactics. Matches were longer than those in the five-a-side game: 15 minutes for ordinary games and 20 minutes for the final.
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