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Sunday, December 4, 2016


The Arctic Winter Games are so much more than just another sports tournament. The AWG are held every two years and, until this year, have always been held in venues across sub-Arctic Canada and United States. It is not, however, a tournament made up of national teams, but rather individuals and teams representing regions, states and provinces from across Arctic Russia, North America and Scandinavia. The Games are a showcase for the region's best young sporting talent, and also for indigenous games, arts and crafts. They are also a way for those competing to interact with youngsters from other regions and countries in a part of the world where travelling from one place to another is an expensive and time-consuming business; budget airlines and expansive road and rail links do not exist in the sparsely-populated Arctic.

There is a wide range of sports in the AWG calendar, ranging from basketball and skiing to indigenous Inuit and First Nation sports. Competitions are split into a number of age categories across both sexes; there are also open adult competitions for adult in what are termed Arctic and Dene sports. Futsal competitions are split into five categories: Juvenile Male, Junior Male, Juvenile Female, Junior Female and Intermediate Female. Futsal/Indoor Soccer has an integral part of the Games for years now, and is among the best-attended competitions.

Earlier this year, the Arctic Winter Games ventured outside mainland North America for the first time, and were held in Nuuk, capital of Greenland - with the exception of the ice-hockey competitions, which were held in Iqaluit, capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut, as Greenland does not possess a suitable ice-hockey venue - from 6 March until 11 March.

Nine regions participated in this year's Games: Greenland, Alaska, Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Alberta North, Nunavik Québec, Yamal and Sápmi. Seven of them - with the exception of Nunavik Québec and the Russian region of Yamal - took part in the five Futsal competitions, all of which were held at the Godthåb Hallen. Over 300 players and coaches were involved in the Futsal tournament.

Yamal sent a team of just 10 athletes and officials to Nuuk due to financial constraints. They last took part in an AWG Indoor Soccer competition in 2012, when they won gold in the Junior Male category. On the other hand, Nunavik, the northernmost region in the Canadian province of Québec, have never sent an Indoor Soccer/Futsal team to an Arctic Winter Games, and it is unlikely that they will do so just yet due to the size of the region, the tiny number of inhabitants (just over 12000) and the comparative lack of infrastructure.

Getting the Games up and running on time was a huge logistical challenge in itself, and the weather threw a huge spanner in the works. In the days before the Arctic Winter Games began, the eastern Arctic region of North America was hit by severe storms just as the teams were departing for Greenland. Many of the teams travelling to Nuuk and Iqaluit were forced to stay overnight at Kangerlussuaq, where Greenland's only airport capable of handling large aircraft is located. The plan was to transfer the teams on to both venues in smaller aircraft. In the end, more than 30 flights shuttled participants between Kangerlussuaq, Nuuk and Iqaluit, though more than 400 athletes and officials, including those taking part in the ice-hockey competitions in Iqaluit, were forced to miss the opening ceremony on 6 March. 

The delays also affected the Futsal tournament. Bo Naamansen, a member of the Futsal tournament's local organising committee, elaborated further on this point, and also gave his opinions on the Futsal tournament as a whole: "The Futsal tournament at the Arctic Winter Games 2016 was a great success, with some fine Futsal played and the arena full of spectators giving it all that extra spark.

"Before it even began, we were delayed: the flight bridge was postponed due to bad weather - a storm, actually - over the host city of Nuuk. Luckily - more to do with good planning - we were well prepared and soon Plan B was implemented. Due to heavy constraints on time following the delay and [to there being] only one arena to play in, we had to set the game time down to 2 halves of 14 minutes instead of the agreed 2x17 minutes.

"Not all of the teams were pleased with this to begin with, but we had no complaints about it as the Games [actually] began. In the preliminary rounds - that is, the first three days of the tournament - the [first match] started at 07:30 and [the last match] finished at 21:30. They were long days, perhaps too long. To avoid this [in the future], the easy thing to change would be to use two or more playing fields as a minimum for the preliminaries.

"It was the first time in AWG history that we played Futsal [i.e. under FIFA Futsal rules] instead of Indoor Soccer, and in my opinion there can be no doubt that Futsal is in the AWG to stay. It is a much more vivid, fast, technical and intense version of the old soccer game than its predecessor. This also makes it a very spectator-friendly sport. You cannot rely on tactics, technical ability or physical stamina alone. It has to be a combination of all three, but dosed according to the opponent in each game.

"The special ball (heavier and almost non-bouncing), combined with the 4-second rule, keeps the ball rolling in beautiful patterns up and down the playing-field, but for some teams, who had played little or no Futsal, it took some getting used to. My recommendation to all participating countries: train Futsal (and Futsal only) using the special ball all through your respective indoor seasons. In Greenland we have done this for a couple of years - no-one wants to go back to the old Indoor Soccer.

"On the first game day we had a royal visitor: Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark came to watch the Junior Male game between Greenland and Nunavut. The arena was packed with roaring spectators and the witnessed the home team winning confidently. From that moment on, the arena was packed each time a team from Greenland played - that meant a packed arena perhaps 80% of the time.

"So, it was kind of hard work for the volunteers helping out with the games; seldom a quiet moment, combined with long hours. [Due to the popularity of the Futsal competitions,] the security team had to adjust the maximum number of spectators allowed in the arena; this must be an accurate number and must be taken seriously at all times."

Christian Laursen, chairman of Greenland champions B-67, gave a brief assessment of Futsal in Greenland, a version of football which is proving wildly popular in a country already very much in love with the round ball: "Futsal is here to stay. We still have much to do, but we are on the way. Internationally, these [the AWG] are the games where we have the best chance to make results." And make results Greenland did. Their teams won just the one gold uru, but add a couple of runners-up spots and a third place, and it can be said with not a little justification that the hosts had a very successful Futsal tournament.

Robert DeVassie, head coach of Team Alaska at the AWG, was positive about the tournament, and the Godthåb Hallen venue, but hinted at the difference in standard between some of the teams: "The competition was good but it was noticeable that some teams were new to Futsal while other teams like Greenland have been playing for a while. Of course, playing in Nuuk in a Futsal facility with lots of fans cheering you on made it even better!" The Alaskan contingent had arguably more success than that of Greenland, winning two finals and being on the losing side in another.

Naamansen, meanwhile, also had some common-sense advice for those involved in organising future Futsal tournaments at the Arctic Winter Games. "As a Futsal committee member, I recommend focusing on co-ordinating with other committees, especially the security and first-aid committees. Regarding Futsal volunteers, we had two people at the referee's table and two people in the speaker-box keeping track of the scores, fouls, yellow and red card and the live score via GEMS. These people are very essential. Try to find reliable and experienced volunteers for these tasks. 

"On a tight schedule, it is here you secure that you are able to keep to the time. That is what we did - we kept playing all the games right on time. The only exceptions were one or two games in the final rounds which went to penalties, causing minor delays which were soon nullified.

"We had too little time in general and this also affected the medal ceremonies, which had to be carried out in somewhat of a hurry without using pedestals. The schedule should allow for plenty of time to prepare for the medal ceremonies - they are, after all, the icing on the cake." 

In spite of Naamansen's misgivings on one or two points, most of those taking part - and their coaching staff, such as DeVassie - were very complimentary about the Futsal competition and how it was run. Another was Ollie Williams, president of NWT Soccer, the governing body for football in the Northwest Territories.

"Greenland proved to be superb hosts for the Arctic Winter Games," he said, "and the atmosphere generated for many Futsal matches inside their facility, particularly those involving the home team, was unlike anthing else some of our young players would have experienced. Boisterous, loud, packed to the rafters (and some spectators being turned away as a result). A remarkable achievement, and that environment really added to the event."

Williams was also full of praise for Team NWT's impressive showing at the Games - they won one gold and one bronze ulu - and justifiably so: "In terms of our performance in Greenland, our juvenile girls' team won gold - an exceptional achievement and one for which the coach [Tonya Huck] and leading scorer [Katie Hart] picked up [NWT Soccer]'s Coach of the Year and Player of the Year awards respectively last month. Our junior girls took bronze and all five NWT teams reached at least the semi-finals, which is a magnificent base on which to build for a home Games in Hay River and Fort Smith [in 2018]."

Most of the regions competing in the AWG's Futsal tournament can expect to head home with at least one medal to show for their efforts. Apart from Alaska, Greenland and the Northwest Territories, the traditional Sami region of Sápmi won gold in the Intermediate Female section, the only Futsal section they entered. Yukon came away with one silver and two bronze, whilst Alberta North won one bronze and a silver which should really have been gold

For the Canadian territory of Nunavut, however, even the modest goal of winning one Futsal medal is usually out of reach. To date, Nunavut has only won one Futsal medal at an Arctic Winter Games, and that was back in 2006 in the Juvenile Female section, when the competitions were held under the old Indoor Soccer regulations.

Even so, the Nunavut Soccer Association's executive director, Dawn Currie, was still upbeat about the performance of the territory's Futsal contingent, saying that it was an improvement on previous years and that "each game was relatively close in final score for us." The NSA has embraced Futsal, an approach which was deemed necessary as the territory possesses no full-size outdoor football pitches. This is due in no small part to the severe climate of the region; almost all sports played by school-age children are done so indoors, though she added that Futsal has enabled local indoor soccer enthusiasts to improve their technique.

But, Currie emphasised that Nunavut's improvement on-court was also due in part to events off the field of play: preparation is key to improvement. "We also better prepared our teams this year. Unlike in past years, Nunavut Soccer Association was able to support an identification tournament and a final selection camp...and then provided further development and team building by sending teams to southern Canada for a weekend of exhibition games, skills camps and team building activities. This meant that our teams knew each other and played together prior to attending the actual AWG in Nuuk. In the past, teams never had this opportunity."

"The AWG program is easily the main multi-sport games programme that is a priority for all territorial sport organizations in Nunavut. Its rich history has seen generations [of athletes] participate. At the AWG, our young athletes achieve success, celebrate tradition...they take great pride in being named to Team Nunavut! For soccer in Nunavut, this is the highest level of a multi-sport games we participate in. The Canada Games programme uses regulation-size and [FIFA] rules, and we are just not able to develop and compete. Our participation in the AWG is just one of the reasons that [indoor] soccer has the highest youth participatory number in Nunavut - it is a goal for our young players to be part of the team."

The eyes of the Nunavutians and the other teams from across the Arctic will now turn to the South Slave region of the Northwest Territories, which will host the next Arctic Winter Games. The Games will be held from 17 March-24 March 2018 in the towns of Fort Smith and Hay River, with the Futsal tournament expected to be held in Hay River's Ben Sivertz Arena (though this has not yet been finalised). Many of the players involved in this year's edition will no doubt be included in their respective teams for the South Slave Games, but, once again, there will probably be no Intermediate Male Futsal competition on the agenda.

The question as to why this is was asked to Robert DeVassie, and he had this to say: "We've wondered the same thing - why we can't have an older boys team (intermediates) like the girls. During the coaches' meeting at the [AWG in Nuuk], we discussed the possibliity of having an Intermediate Male [section]. What we were told [by the AWG board and technical committee] is that the boys and girls sports have to even out on all of the Games. 

"There must be a sport that has another boys' team; that is why there are currently 3 girls' teams and only 2 boys' teams for Futsal. The other reason may be that the sport of Futsal is one of the largest [groups of] participants, with 45 kids and 5 coaches [in each age group]. The board/technical committee will look into it."

A short, definitive answer was provided by Arctic Winter Games International Committee's Ian Legaree. "An Intermediate Male category will not be added to the Games programme for 2018 largely to venue holding restrictions and overall gender balance in the Games." 

There are five age categories in AWG Futsal competition, three female and two male. This is presumably to balance up there being four more male categories in the Arctic Sports tournament than there are female, so one can perhaps understand the AWG's logic behind their decision not to introduce an Intermediate Male category.

And, one can understand the organisation's stance when it comes to their being no adult sections in the Futsal tournament. Legaree again: "With respect to adult categories, the AWGs are targeted at youth age 19/20 and under. As such, adult categories will not be added to the Games programme."

But, it means that the vast majority of the (sub-)Arctic's male Futsal players have nowhere to go and nothing to aim for once they are no longer eligible to play in the Junior Male competition; this is a pity, a waste of talent and an impediment to the development of the sport in the region. Only Greenland currently has a full national/regional Futsal team, and it is possibly the fastest-growing sport in the country. At least their young players will have something to aim for; the national Futsal team recently competed at the Nordic Futsal Cup in Sweden. For those Futsal players from Nunavut, Alaska, Yamal et al, the trail comes to an end at the Junior Male stage.

It will be up to the regional football associations to attempt to organise a cross-Arctic Adult competition, either indoor or outdoor, and that will only happen if demand and funds are sufficient for such a competition to take place. But Futsal will remain at the core of the Arctic Winter Games for some time to come, a popular sport in a gathering which is at least as much social and cultural as it is sporting, an essential coming together of the youth of the Arctic. Legaree: "Futsal (and before it, Indoor Soccer) has proven to be very popular at the Arctic Winter Games. It draws a huge spectator base wherever it is hosted and is likely to continue to do so going forward." Let's hope so. This year's event in Nuuk will be a hard act for South Slave to follow in 2018.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Many and sincere thanks to all of those who contributed to the above article; Robert DeVassie (Team Alaska head Futsal coach), Ollie WIlliams (NWT Soccer president), Bo Naamansen and Svend Svaerd (AWG 2016 Futsal organising committee members), Maliina Abelsen (AWG 2016 general manager), Christian Laursen (B-67 chairman), Dawn Currie (executive director of the Nunavut Soccer Association), Ian Legaree (Arctic Winter Games International Committee), Doug Rentmeister (Sport North) and above all to to Doris Landry, the recently-retired secretary of the Arctic Winter Games International Committee, who provided superlative assistance in so many ways and kindly granted permission to reproduce the necessary statistics from each category of the AWG 2016 Futsal tournament. These are available here on Pat's Football Blog via the following links:

Juvenile Male:

Juvenile Female:

Junior Male:

Junior Female:

Intermediate Female:


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