Futsal Spotlight on Alex Para
Alexander J.C. Para is President & CEO of United States Futsal Federation (USFF). U.S Futsal is the National Governing Body of the sport of Futsal (indoor soccer) in the United States. Alex was elected President of USFF after having served for six years as Executive Vice-President in 1986, and has guided USFF to national stature including its integration into The United States Soccer Federation in 1989. Alex has embarked on other ambitious programs for the forthcoming years, among these to make Futsal the preeminent indoor sport in the US.
Alex J.C. Para has devoted a lot of his time to the sport, both as a participant and as an executive. He played soccer at the University of California at Berkeley, and also at the amateur level for teams in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has been active in youth soccer and has served as an active referee since 1972. He has refereed at the professional level in leagues such as the NASL, MISL, ASL, and APSL. He became a National Soccer Referee in 1985. In the Futsal arena he became an International Futsal Referee in 1984, having refereed in the first North American Futsal Cup (1984), the Pan American Futsal Championship in Brazil (1984), the Second FIFUSA World Championship in Spain (1985) including doing the Championship Game, the First Pacific Cup Championship in Australia (1987), and the second Pacific Cup Championship in Mexico (1989). He retired as a Futsal Referee when he became a member of FIFA’s Futsal Committee in 1990. Although he retired as a National Soccer Referee in 1995, he still referees in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a National Referee of NISOA.
SoccerToday’s Dr. Rob Webb caught up with Alex Para for an interview.
Dr. Rob Webb: Good morning and thanks for your time.
Alex Para: Pleasure to speak to you.
Dr. Rob Webb: Alex, you are the President of the United States Futsal Federation. Very few people know Futsal and what it is. Can you describe it?
Alex Para: Short-sided soccer, basically. Five a side, 4 players plus a goalkeeper. It can be played anywhere, inside on a basketball court, or a handball court.
Dr. Rob Webb: How is Futsal different from soccer, and how is it the same?
Alex Para: “It’s the same, because it uses a spherical ball, although it is a little smaller and heavier and doesn’t bounce as much, it remains at the player’s feet, so players touch the ball 10X more per game.”
Dr. Rob Webb: Ten times more per game? Interesting.
Alex Para: You are always involved. It’s like basketball. You cannot ‘hide’. You must be involved all the time. There have been 19 FIFA Soccer World Cup Cups, and of those 19, countries that play Futsal have won 15 of them. Players such as Maradonna, Pele, Messi grew up playing Futsal until age 12 and then switched to soccer; this is mainly because primary and elementary schools usually don’t have soccer fields, but they do have some sort of indoor gymnasium or recreation areas.
Dr. Rob Webb: When did this start?
Alex Para: “Since 1981 (the founding of U.S. Futsal), we have tried to convince the soccer community that they need to be playing Futsal. At least now, coaches say ‘Hey, we need to be playing Futsal’ or small sided games. We have come a long way.
The other problem is that young soccer players don’t get a chance to shoot as much in soccer. When you look at the Brazilians, and the Italians, they’re always shooting. They get a lot of confidence since in Futsal you get many more chances to shoot at the goal. Four a side (Futsal without the goalkeeper) helps in passing and dribbling but not in shooting. It is like playing basketball without the hoop.”
Dr. Rob Webb: Some say Futsal is ‘Brazilian street soccer’. Is this an accurate description?
Alex Para: “Yes it is! The guy who invented Futsal in Uruguay (Juan Carlos Ceriani) started it because after the first FIFA World Cup (1930) there was not enough space for soccer. So he thought it would be a good idea to play inside. Futsal started in Uruguay, but Brazil is where Futsal was really developed, and shown to the rest of the world. FIFA adopted this game in 1990. At that time FIFA called it Indoor Soccer, I convinced the President of FIFA, Dr. Havelange to include in the FIFA articles that the game should be called Futsal. Nevertheless, FIFA did not change the name until the third FIFA Futsal World Championship in 1996. If you look at the Spanish team that won the last World Cup in 2010, 9 of the 11 players on that team were Futsal players. Other countries are getting more involved now, even England.”
Dr. Rob Webb: You yourself not only played soccer, but you were also a US Soccer National Referee.
Alex Para: “When I started refereeing in the early 70’s, there were about 2500 soccer referees in all of the US, now we have about 130,000. I got into refereeing because back then in the league that I was playing in, the league required each team to supply a referee for the next game. We just got a whistle to control the game, no uniform or red/yellow cards. I then took a referee course from U.S. Soccer, but having a uniform and red/yellow cards made it so much easier than just a whistle. I had two really good mentors, Henry Landauer, and Ricardo Quintanilla. Henry Landauer was the first American to referee in a World Cup (Mexico). They were great referees, and they taught me at lot. I was lucky to have such good mentors. I was nominated to become a FIFA referee, but I chose instead to become more involved in Futsal.”
Dr. Rob Webb: Football, basketball, baseball, even lacrosse are all home grown American Sports. Soccer, however, was at one time, played everywhere in the world but here in the US. Would you say that soccer is here to stay?
Alex Para: “Oh, of course, simply because the greatest portion of the population that is growing is the Latin population and soccer is mainly their sport. At this point, everyone who comes to America who is foreign has a soccer background. Latin America, England, Africa. Football, Basketball, they are here to stay, but I believe soccer will follow them, ahead of baseball.”
Dr. Rob Webb: Some say America has earned world respect in soccer with decent showings in past World Cups.
Alex Para: “Yes, they have done well. However, when I was on the Board of US Soccer, we said that by 2010 America would win the World Cup. 2010 came and went. We tied England on a lucky goal. Hard to say, I think we’re doing much better. The U.S. Soccer National team is like a runner, that always comes in no better than in 3rd place. The question now is, can we come in second or first. We are growing. I think eventually we can win, but in order to do this, our younger players will have to start with Futsal.”
Dr. Rob Webb: There are those, however, who say America’s showing has been disappointing, even an embarrassment. How would you respond to such allegations?
Alex Para: “I disagree. Other teams have to be very careful about playing the Americans. We are not yet at the point where we win consistently, but those teams, like England, that take us lightly, have regretted it. We can be a spoiler!!”
Dr. Rob Webb: Where does Futsal ‘fit’ with soccer, particularly in America?
Alex Para: “Americans have seen soccer, for some 50 years now. Very few people know about Futsal, but it is growing, in fact by percentage it must be the faster growing sport in America. Futsal is not only a sport in itself, but it will always be the best training vehicle for soccer. It will greatly enhance a soccer player’s skills.
In my opinion, any child between the ages of 6 and 11 should not be playing soccer, the field is too big, and there are not enough touches on the ball. In Futsal, there are 10x more touches on the ball, so they develop the basic skills faster and have fun. In soccer, most recreational soccer players touch the ball once or twice a game, and the parents and team moms are satisfied that their kids are getting exercise and having fun, but they are not and by age 12 we lose about 40% of our soccer players. Nearly all of the recreational players are not playing soccer. They are watching soccer. Have a kid play soccer and Futsal, and then ask the kid ‘which do you like more, Soccer or Futsal?’ They will say Futsal. Teach them skill and technique first and to run on a large field later!”
Dr. Rob Webb: As a licensed soccer referee, I took the Futsal course, and I’ve watched a number of matches. It’s different. My sense is that many of the referees doing Futsal don’t understand the game of Futsal, simply because they don’t recognize it as a different game.
Alex Para: “Yes you are right, the referee has to adapt to the differences. In soccer, there are often pretty rough shoulder-to-shoulder charges that are legal. One foot on the ground, ball in playing distance, shoulder-to-shoulder. Not so in Futsal. Because Futsal is played in a small area, contact is really not allowed. Futsal moves at a fast pace and the referee has to recognize and make decisions very fast, and if he is a soccer referee as well it will improve his outdoor game as well. It made it easier for me to become a National Soccer referee. Some of our earlier National Futsal Referees, such as Tim Weyland and Brian Hall, become FIFA outdoor soccer referees. Brian Hall not only was in charge of the U.S. Soccer Referee program, but also is now with the CONCACAF referee program.
The current instructors have not done high-level games. Nothing substitutes for experience. And it shows in the World Cup. We have a long way to go in refereeing Futsal.”
Dr. Rob Webb: What would be the best way to become a good Futsal referee?
Alex Para: “Practice, practice, practice and have played the sport. Nothing substitutes for experience, but some referees have a better ability to recognize fouls, manage people, be slightly deaf and have courage to make decisions. Some people want to learn to be a cook from reading a book, but you have to be in the kitchen to be a good one.”
Dr. Rob Webb: We in America like contact sports. If you’re not convinced of that, all you need to do is watch the NHL playoffs. Few realize that Futsal, unlike soccer, is not a ‘contact’ sport. The object of Futsal is to use deft touches on the ball to outplay your opponent and score. In soccer, the object often seems to be to ‘out-physical’ your opponent. How do you think Futsal will catch on given this disadvantage?
Alex Para: “Yes, it will catch on, we like both types of sports, our two favorites are American Football and basketball and in both we like the finesse play of a Michael Jordan or the aggressive dunk of LeBron James. The great tackle or the acrobatic catch!! The reason why people don’t watch as much soccer in the US is because we don’t have enough finesse in the MLS. We need more Messi’s. He does not use brute strength and he’s arguably the best player in the world, he outplays everyone and scores many goals a lot with finesse. He’s a legend, this is the way of soccer, and I believe American soccer will go that way as well. And it all starts with Futsal. There will always be some physical element, of course, you’re talking about big strong guys in a high-pressure environment. But soccer in America is here to stay. It won’t be long before you see Futsal in the gym just the way you see the pickup basketball game.”