It’s been a week since Brayden Lissington took part in the opportunity of a lifetime but the Futsal White is still coming back down to earth after rubbing shoulders with some of the best players on the planet.
The 24-year-old travelled to Florida this month after earning a place in the Professional Futsal League (PFL) All-Star Showcase, which featured the likes of superstars Falcão and Ricardinho – regarded as the Pelé and Maradona of futsal.
“It was like a dream,” says Lissington of his brush with futsal royalty.
“It was one thing to compete against the best futsal players in the world but something else to spend a week getting to know them and their families.”
Lissington got to line up with the legends after entering an online competition where futsal players from around the world were invited to show off their skills. The reward was a spot in the All-Star Showcase, a promotional event to spread the buzz around the Professional Futsal League – the United States’ first high-profile futsal competition which is set to kick off in 2018.
Nearly 80,000 fans engaged in the voting process – with the expert opinions of Falcão and Ricardinho also taken into account – and Lissington was one of 10 players from eight different countries to make the final selection. The University of Waikato student was put on the same team as Portuguese star Ricardinho and relished each moment he spent on court at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando’s Walt Disney Resort.
“The reality of the match was that it was an exhibition of the best futsal players in the world. So my job was to get the ball to Ricardinho as much as possible and I was really happy with how I did,” he says.
Aside from the on-court action, there was plenty else to make the most of with the participants having the red carpet rolled out for them.
“We were flown to Orlando, put up at one of Disney’s five-star resorts – complete with giraffes – and given free access to theme parks. We had two trainings, a VIP dinner, an owners’ lunch and a small function after the match,” he says.
“All in all, I did my best to get to know the other competition winners, to speak to as many PFL franchise owners as possible and to enjoy my time around the legends of our sport.”
The All-Star Showcase completed a memorable period for Lissington, who also represented his country at the FISU World University Futsal Championship a month earlier in Brazil. Both events have given him an insight into how elite players conduct themselves on and off the court and he has taken plenty of learnings from the experience.
“I’ve been really lucky to be involved in two world-class futsal events in the last two months. My biggest take away from observing some of the best players in the world is that they do the simple things really well,” he says.
“Futsal is played in a more restricted environment than football and often this means the right and wrong decisions are more clear-cut. In my experience, the best players just choose the right option consistently and then have the technical mastery to implement their decision.”
Lissington, who was born in Rotorua but raised in Hawke’s Bay, believes players in New Zealand are not far off bridging the gap but need to focus on retaining the ball.
“Overall, I feel like we are a lot closer to the pros than I anticipated,” he says.
“But I don’t think we are committed to choosing the simple option when we have the ball. Amongst the pros, there was an overwhelming desire to maintain possession.”
New Zealand Football Futsal Development Manager Dave Payne also dropped into Orlando for the All-Star Showcase on return from FIFA headquarters in Switzerland, where he submitted the country’s proposal to host the FIFA Futsal World Cup in 2020.
He was impressed by what he saw and is excited at the prospect of the Professional Futsal League.
“To have a widely-followed league of a high standard in the United States will be massive for the further development of futsal around the world,” he says.
“We wish the organisers all the best and are looking forward to working alongside them in growing the game.”
For Lissington, the next step on his journey is the Futsal National League, in which he will be both coaching and playing for WaiBOP from October.
His long-term goal is to be immersed in a professional futsal environment and to use that to help drive the growth of the sport in New Zealand.
“I want other New Zealanders to join us in ensuring we are doing everything we can to give ourselves the best chance of qualifying for the Futsal World Cup,” he says.