Another new chapter in the rapidly progressing story of futsal will be written this month as the Futsal Whites leave these shores to tour a non-Oceania country for the first ever time, taking part in a four-team tournament in China.
Led by player-coach Marvin Eakins, the Futsal Whites are set to face China, Russia and Vietnam from June 22 to 24 at the CFA International Futsal Tournament, which will provide valuable experience as they continue to build towards the FIFA Futsal World Cup in 2020.
Qualification for that World Cup could well be automatic as New Zealand Football has put its hand up to host the biggest celebration of futsal on the planet and is waiting to hear if the bid has been successful.
In the meantime, Eakins is tasked with putting together a side capable of competing strongly on the world stage and has named an exciting squad for the China tour.
Eakins, who has over 50 caps to his name, will again take to the court and will be joined by several fellow experienced campaigners in the form of goalkeeper Elias Billeh, Dylan Manickum, Luc Saker, Stephen Ashby-Peckham and Lucas Da Silva while there are also recalls for Brayden Lissington and Tai Barham.
A stand-out feature of the group is its potential with Logan Wisnewski – captain of the U-18 national team – and Oban Hawkins receiving their first call-ups while the young quartet of Jordan Ditfort, Thomas McGowan, Benjamin Lapslie and goalkeeper Hamish Mitchell all retain their places after debuting against New Caledonia last September.
Long-term regular Kareem Osman was not available due to work commitments.
“The squad is pretty exciting because it’s really young – the majority of the team are under 25 and we’ve got a sprinkling that are actually under 20 as well,” Eakins says. “But it’s a good balance with a few older heads in there as well to keep that average age up.”
The presence of those experienced campaigners are vital in a sport of futsal’s intensity.
“Futsal is so high pressure and mistakes happen a lot so it’s about how you react to those,” Eakins says. “That can be challenging for the less experienced players so what the older players do bring is a bit of calm and understanding around how the international game is played.”
Eakins had a welcome selection headache on his hands with more futsal specialists coming through the system than ever before and the process of monitoring those players moving up a level. Three training centres have now been set up across the country – in the upper North Island, lower North Island and South Island – and that has allowed Eakins to have access to a wealth of information on the playing pool.
“It gives us a chance to look at a lot more players,” he says of the regional centres.
“The national team camps have been limited in the past because you can only bring in 14 to 16 players whereas this time we’ve actually had a look at up to 50 players across the country. And it’s not just about the players, it also gives us a chance to work with the coaches in each region and upskill them while we’re at it. The great thing is that we’re all doing the same thing across the country so, when we do come together for camps, everybody is on the same page.”
The Futsal Whites will need to make the most of that cohesion in China as two of their opponents – Russia and Vietnam – are ranked more highly while the hosts are just below 68th-ranked New Zealand.
“Vietnam and Russia are both powerhouses and were at the last World Cup. Russia have some of the best players in the world and are a proud futsal country and even China have come a long way in the last few years,” Eakins says.
“So it’s going to be hard to find a bit of breathing space while we’re playing but that’s the challenge we want. We want to be at a World Cup and these are the teams we’re going to be coming up against once we get there.”
China vs New Zealand, 2.30pm local time (6.30pm NZ time)
New Zealand vs Russia, 6pm local time (10pm NZ time)
New Zealand vs Vietnam, 6pm local time (10pm NZ time)