For many of you (by which I mean “for me”), indoor football conjures up semi-distant memories of wooden-floored gymnasiums with bewildering floor markings and what can only be described as a giant tennis ball.
Sitting comfortably in the middle of the ‘Satisfaction From Hitting It as Hard as Possible’ spectrum – between playground sponge ball (low) and £1.99 lighter-than-air-itself Shoot ball (very high) – this fluorescent, felt-covered ball skidded beautifully off the surface and thwacked happily off the walls.
Before we delve deep into the evolution of indoor football, we should take a moment to set it apart from futsal, which is exclusively for the enjoyment of deluded but dangerously skilful Brazilophiles who think a raking 40-yard crossfield pass is an insult.
It goes almost without saying, then, that England are quite shit at it, languishing below Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan and the Solomon Islands in the official world rankings. This is not about futsal.
For others, perhaps, indoor football is represented by happily plump and vaguely recognisable ex-pros – with highly tenuous links to the team they’re representing – waddling around in a vain chase of the ball as it follows the gentle curve of the Plexiglass side wall before someone knocks it back into the safe hands of a tracksuit-bottomed Dave Beasant. Live on Sky Sports 2, sometime in the mid-2000s.
Some may simply, and fondly, remember the indoor mode on FIFA ‘98.
Pinpointing indoor football’s golden era – if it ever had one – isn’t a simple task. Perhaps the Major Indoor Soccer League, which capitalised upon and then outlived Pele, Cruyff and Beckenbauer’s outdoor NASL, has a solid case.
Operating in its first incarnation between 1978-1992, the MISL presented a convenient solution to the initial American bugbear with soccer: namely, the prospect of going 90 minutes without seeing anyone score.
During that period, a whole raft of journeyman nobodies became indoor superstars in the shirts of absurdly-named teams like the Chicago Horizons, Cleveland Crunch and San Francisco Fog, all battling it out in converted ice hockey arenas for primetime TV audiences.
The San Diego Sockers, who won eight of the 14 titles during the MISL era, were undoubtedly the star attraction – and not just because of their frankly excellent promotional videos.
Game 3 of the 1984 finals produced indoor football’s equivalent of Brazil 1970, starring former Everton trainee Brian Quinn and Hungarian indoor legend Juli Veee (“double-deuce, triple-E, the one and only Juli Veee”)
Another MISL hall-of-famer, perhaps the greatest indoor footballer of them all, was Slavisa “Steve” Zungul, who racked up an astonishing goal tally for the New York Arrows before an equally stellar spell with the Sockers.
Zungul had defied Yugoslav military service and his club Hajduk Split to escape to New York on a two-week holiday with his pop star girlfriend, only to be banned by FIFA for breaking his contract.
Conveniently, though, the wacky world of indoor soccer was outside of that jurisdiction, albeit several levels below Zungul’s level. Having played at the European Championships for his country in 1976, he was now scoring goals for fun past such heavyweights as the Cincinnati Kids.
He rattled in a preposterous 108 goals in 40 games in the 1980-81 season – his nearest rival scored a mere 50 – before the US Supreme Court finally allowed him to play outdoors in the NASL, where he won the Most Valuable Player award in 1984.
The lure of the plastic pitch was too strong, however, and the “Lord of all Indoors” returned to the MISL with the Sockers the same year.
By the time of his retirement in 1990, Zungul had amassed 652 goals and 471 assists. Even in the pinball machine of indoor football, those were outrageous numbers.
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The peak in England
Back in England, the indoor, small-sided form was rather more of a novelty sideshow. The Evening Standard newspaper lent their name to a five-a-side competition for London clubs in 1954, and it flourished for another thirty years as an attractive alternative to the Football League.
In the 1980s, it was still a reasonable draw for TV viewers, not to mention a chance for league clubs to blood young talent in a competitive environment – talent such as Teddy “Sheringham”, seen here as a 17-year-old for Millwall, up against Arsenal goalkeeper Gary Lewin (yes, latex-glove enthusiast and the only physio you can name off the top of your head, Gary Lewin) in 1983:
The unfathomably wide goals and semi-circled penalty area were a stylistic digression from the American format, and the competition finally bowed out in the early 1990s, apparently just before it became indistinguishable from ITV game show Gladiators.
Here’s John Salako presenting the 1993 edition, which reached its dramatic climax with a penalty shootout between Wimbledon and Watford in the final:
The post-Heysel European ban meant English clubs craved any football they could get, and prime-time TV continued to provide it.
The Guinness Soccer Sixes were a delightfully star-studded affair – here’s John Motson on the mic in 1988, adding real gravitas to proceedings:
Behold, the scarcely-believable spectacle of an England international (Des Walker) hobbling off before an England international (Stuart Pearce) welts the resultant free-kick against the post:
Imagine that now. Sky Sports 1HD, broadcasting live from the Wembley branch of Powerleague, as Joey Barton shoulder-barges someone into the barriers and Eden Hazard completes a first-half hat-trick. Insurance companies and TV executives would rub their hands with glee, while national team managers would watch through their fingers.
Indoor football gave regular-season no-marks the chance to pad out their career scrapbooks. Arsenal duo Perry Groves and Gus Caesar went all Pele-and-Carlos-Alberto on poor little Middlesbrough:
Yes, we now have Champions League football and we can watch any league we like any night of the week, but do we have an oddly svelte Jan Molby slaloming his way past some Charlton stalwart to rifle home at the near-post of a field hockey goal? Nope.
North of the border, things were taken even more seriously. The Tennent’s Soccer Sixes ran from 1984 to 1993, perhaps peaking with some mild Graeme Souness violence…
…and a cheeky Panenka from Ally McCoist.
With the professional 11-a-side game being ushered into a new era of seriousness by the Premier League, these indoor novelties were soon phased out.
However, rather than disappearing altogether, they soon became the domain of retired (or soon-t0-be retired) stars of the 80s and 90s, who would occasionally confirm to 5,000 ticket holders that they’ve Still Got It:
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) September 26, 2016
The barrel-scraping Masters format did manage to spawn international versions like the Home Nations Masters, in which Ally McCoist, Neville Southall and Peter Beardsley still tried their hearts out, despite being almost completely cube-shaped.
Without the peak-fitness intensity of its forerunners, Masters football inevitably descended into a Soccer Saturday-style chuckle-a-thon.
Then, in the traditional final nail in the coffin for these sorts of things, celebrities started getting involved and ruined it forever:
From exiled 1970s playboys in New York to Gareth Gates puffing his way round a glorified netball court, indoor football’s history may lack the credibility of the 11-a-side game, but it retains an innate sense of spectacle.
By Adam Hurrey