An urban version of soccer — known everywhere outside the U.S. as futbol — is growing in Durham. Futsal is soccer played on a smaller, usually indoor court, with fewer players and a smaller ball. It’s ideal for kids because they get more contact with the ball and ideal for cities because tennis courts and basketball courts can be converted to a futsal pitch more easily than creating a new soccer field.
That’s what’s happening in Durham.
Thanks to a Blue Cross Blue Shield grant of $160,000, two tennis courts at East End Park are being converted into futsal pitches. One is already finished, and Durham Parks and Recreation and the U.S. Soccer Foundation — along with young futsal players — celebrated its opening on Tuesday evening.
Fox Sports broadcaster Fernando Fiore was there and provided the words everyone was waiting for: “Gooooooaaaaaaallllllll!”
“You saw a couple of tennis courts probably nobody uses and [turned them into] now new soccer mini pitches kids use everyday,” Fiore said. “I wish as a kid, I had this.”
Fiore said that growing up in Argentina, he and his friends played on the dirt. With the futsal pitches, “every day is a sunny day. Even when it’s raining, because the next day you know this will be there.”
Ramiro Castaneda said his whole family spends the weekends playing futsal and soccer. Four brothers, his sister, nieces and friends all play.
“You can never have too many [futsal pitches], especially when kids and the community can benefit,” he said.
Castaneda has played all his life and dreamed of going pro. He is originally from Guatemala, and said that soccer is what everyone does every weekend there, too. When he came to the U.S. in 2002, the soccer community wasn’t very big.
“Durham has grown so much. Now the community comes together — you see more families coming out, coming together. And now we have more places to come and play,” Castaneda said.
The $160,000 from Blue Cross Blue Shield covers the cost of turning both courts into pitches and four years of a U.S. Soccer Foundation afterschool program called “Soccer for Success,” which is free for kids. The second futsal pitch will open in December. There are a few other futsal pitches in Durham — at Hillside Park and Sherwood Park.
The Durham City Council heard about the grant from Parks and Recreation in September. The money would convert either basketball or tennis courts, but basketball was a ‘no’ because of demand. The six tennis courts at East End Park are not used for league programming, because eight tennis courts would be needed for tournament play. So conversion of two tennis courts into futsal pitches still leaves the park with four tennis courts.
Tennis is still popular in Durham, said Annette Smith, Parks and Recreation program administrator for grants and special projects. But at East End Park, the demand is for futsal.
“This is a wonderful example of a partnership that helps everyone in Durham,” said City Council member Javiera Caballero. “Our kids need to go to school together and they need to play together.”
Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said at a recent council meeting that her 4 year-old son is in a young futsal league and the games are “the cutest hour of my life.”
U.S. Soccer Women’s National Team player Crystal Dunn, also an NC Courage player and UNC grad, said that her family moved from Queens to Long Island when she was little. Their house was less than a mile from a soccer field, she said, which helped get her into the sport with her friends.
“This sport can change lives and bring people together,” Dunn said. The new pitches are “a safe environment for them to play and just be kids.”
Soccer is a game of the people
Parks and Recreation partners with Durham Atletico, which runs soccer and futsal programs for kids and adults. That’s the league Castaneda plays in.
David Fellerath of Durham Atletico said that as soccer gained popularity in Argentina and Uruguay in the 20th century, those in cities repurposed other courts into futsal courts. The space is cheaper to convert and you don’t need as many people to get a game going as you do in traditional soccer, he said.
Fellerath said that there are about 50 to 75 kids who play futsal and soccer through Durham Atletico
“There’s pretty much an unending demand for soccer,” he said.
“I don’t think anyone can match the Latino population for soccer passion. It’s popular all over the world.”
At the same time, soccer in the United States “developed a reputation as a middle class, suburban sport, which is completely counter to the rest of the world. It’s a sport of the common people,” Fellerath said.
Omar Obaydi plays and coaches futsal and soccer in Durham Atletico. He moved to the U.S. from Iraq four years ago in a refugee program.
“I grew up in the Middle East [playing]. It doesn’t cost too much to play. It’s a good outlet for kids and adults,” he said.
Obaydi said he found it very therapeutic in a lot of ways.
“The beauty of soccer is it does not need a lot of explaining. And it’s a social gathering.”