We couldn’t pass on the opportunity to talk to one of the stars of the Nordic futsal scene.
Panu Autio was in Trondheim for the final preparations before the Main round of the UEFA Futsal Cup, and we couldn’t pass on the opportunity to get an interview with what might be the most experienced and accomplished player on the Nordic futsal scene.
So, Panu, you’ve had a great and exciting career so far, but how did it start?
I started playing when I turned 18, back in the fall of 2003. I was at that time playing football in the 2nd division in Finland, and a teammate of mine was Janne Laine, who was both captain of the national futsal team and the coach of Golden Futsal Team (GFT). He asked me to come and play, and I was very excited from the beginning. Actually, at that time, GFT were preparing for the UEFA Futsal Cup in Croatia, and I was supposed to make my debut there. Unfortunately, this coincided with preparations for the final exams in high school. Seeing as I didn’t have the money to pay for the trip myself, me and my mom (mostly my mom) decided that I should stay at home and prepare for the exams, so I didn’t get my UEFA debut that year. My first match thus came later that year, in the Finnish league.
Luckily, I’ve since then have had the chance to play in the UEFA Futsal Cup. But that was first season that I played in the league, and I immediately fell in love with the game. Quite soon I noticed that it fits well for me, and I was quite good at it. In 2006 I was picked to the national team for the first time, and it was very motivating. I was still playing football on the side, but in futsal I was able to learn so much, and develop my skills really fast, even though I was an adult player. I think futsal has the better sides of football, and that’s why I love it.
That’s your first years. When did you get to play the UEFA Futsal Cup for the first time?
We won the Finnish championship back in 2007/2008 and 2008/2009, and that’s when we played UEFA Futsal Cup. The first year we didn’t make it past the preliminary round, after two victories and one defeat, but the next year we made it to the Main round. We actually were close to going to the Elite round, but lost on goal difference after 1-1-1 in the three matches. And that’s the last time I’ve played in the Main round at the club level, even though I’ve played Main round with the national team many times since then.
After playing for GFT from 2003-2010, you signed for ElPozo Ciudad de Murcia. How did you end up in Spain?
I’ve had a dream to become a professional futsal player for quite some time, and after playing well with the national team, I noticed that I could compete at an international level. Before this, I had – I wouldn’t call it offers – but options. I had my futsal CV on the internet, and some clubs were contacting me. Every time we were around playing with GFT and the national team I was very open about wanting to play professionally, and that I was looking for options. Finally, a friend of friend in Finland, a Spaniard working for a Finnish company, who knew people in ElPozo arranged a tryout for me, and I sent some videos and my CV to Murcia. I went down there for two weeks, I was training with the first team, the second team and the junior team and I got to know the club really well. This was maybe at the peak of ElPozo, when they won both the Spanish league and the cup. They offered me a chance to come there, and I was playing in the second team, which I think is probably the best futsal school that you can have in the world. The system in Murcia is really unique, they are really experienced. They really know how to teach, and how to play futsal. I had a great opportunity to train each with the first team, and I was training with legends like “Kiki” Boned (Enrique Boned Guillot, 2009 Player of the Year), Álvaro Apiricio, Vinicius (Vinicius Elías Teixeira) and super players like that.
What would say about the Spanish second division?
It’s a professional league, and I think it’s very competitive compared to any first league of Europe.
How was that it outside the field? Were you paid?
Not well, it was not a question of money. Luckily I didn’t have a family to feed. They covered my expenses, and luckily, the cost of living is low, so you don’t have to earn a lot to live there. As a matter of fact I was studying while I was there, on exchange from my school back in Finland. That helped me, as I was able to have a social life outside of the futsal field. I made lots of friends at the university, and was having a really, really good time during that year.
That has been the case during my entire career; I have been studying on the side. I use to say that studying has been my “intelligent hobby”, and futsal is much more, like a lifestyle, a passion.
After a year with 25 games and 13 goals you then moved to Unión África Ceutí. How did that happen?
I played a good season in Segunda, so the teams in Spain got to know me. I had the opportunity to continue in second division for Murcia, but they had a rule in Spain, so that players over 23-24 years couldn’t move between the first and the second team. It actually was kind of funny, as I was the only player in the second team older than this, and the other players were like 18-19-20, which was the age I started playing in. But all these players had so much more futsal experience than me, since they’ve been playing since they were very small.
You can notice the differences in technique. You can see it here at Vegakameratene as well. They are very good players, but most of them have problems with basic futsal techniques, because they haven’t been doing these exercises when they were kids. It’s normal that you learn the most when you’re a kid, like controlling the ball with your sole, and the futsal kind of movement. What was the question again?
How did you end up in Unión África Ceutí?
Well, seeing as the rule prevented me from playing for the first team and second team during the season, I was happy to be approached by Unión África Ceutí , who really showed that they believed in me, but also could pay me more, although it wasn’t much at all. I was offered a big role in the team, and it was a really lovely place. Besides, futsal was really big in that city. The people and the local media gave us much attention, and if you had played a good game you would be approached by fans in the street in the week after, telling you like: “Panu, well done, nice goal last week” and so on. We were playing in the playoffs for the first division that year, and the whole city went crazy supporting us. It really was a great experience, and I’m really amazed to have had the chance to play futsal in a futsal city.
Then you went back home?
Well, I was looking for chances to continue playing, but the financial crisis and the economic situation made it difficult – it’s still horrible – so that kind of helped me with the decision to go home to GFT. But I was still looking for opportunities, and after a friendly game against Russian team FC Polytech St. Petersburg the coach approached me and said: “Panu, you visa?” I went over there for a couple of days, and we were negotiating, but in the end the transfer didn’t happen at that time.
At the time I was really engaged in the project with Golden, being the assistant coach, and we ended up second after losing to Ilves in the end – it was really painful. It still was a pretty good season, and surprisingly, after the season, Polytech called me and made me an offer for a contract. We started the preseason in the beginning of July, in Russia.
How was that like living in Russia for one year? Seems like a bold move?
It was a definitely a good futsal school as well. Russian futsal is quite different from the Spanish one. It is definitely one of the best in the world. Tactically speaking, the Russian league is quite difficult. Most of the teams play zonal defense. It was interesting to see how that works. It’s also a pretty physical league, and the games are longer, two times 25 minutes. Besides, you always play two games in a weekend. We were a small team, trying to challenge the big opponents. Financially we were maybe the smallest club in the league. We didn’t have big stars. The other teams had national team players from like Brazil and Russia or Spain.
But you had one from Finland?
(Laughing) Yeah, we had one guy from Finland and one from Ukraine.
Did they pay, or how did you manage?
Yeah, they gave me an apartment, and a decent salary, so I had no problem living on it. Financially speaking I think the Russian league is the strongest in the world.
Socially, how was that like?
I didn’t speak Russian when I went there, but I was really working to learn it, and I did learn it. In the beginning of the season we had a Brazilian player and he had a translator. But in October the Brazilian was kicked out, and the translator disappeared with him. None of the other players spoke English, so I really had to learn Russian. The Russian way of leading is very direct, and it wasn’t an easy place to be for a foreigner. It has been many foreigners there, and for many, I think it has been hard to adapt.
You wouldn’t recommend it to a 19 year old from Norway?
It would definitely be a learning experience, it’s a good futsal school, but it wouldn’t be easy. But it was a good league, and I liked the experience.
You’re probably going to be a futsal coach someday, so I guess it’ll come in handy?
Yes, I have been thinking of it, and I feel like it’s kind of my mission. I have been the first professional player from Finland and the Nordic region as well, and I want to share my knowledge to Finnish futsal people, and other Nordic futsal enthusiast. That’s kind of why I’m here as well, because I hope that I can contribute to the team and Norwegian futsal.
That is also why I have this project, where I’m writing the first futsal book in Finnish.
Ok? So is it basic? Advanced?
I start by talking about the brief history of futsal, the basic rules and story of Finnish futsal. I continue by comparing futsal with football, and then I’m talking about futsal in different countries. Then, in the second part, I talk about the game. I talk about the tactics, the techniques, the physics and the mental part of futsal – a really holistic approach. I also discuss special situations, coaching tips, and stuff like that. And during the entire book I will try to contribute with stories from my career, so it’s not only theory.
I will also make some futsal courses, to help junior football teams to benefit from futsal in their training. It is nice to be back in Finland, to be able to give something back to Finnish futsal.
I wanted to go back, but that meant not playing in the UEFA Futsal Cup this year, so the opportunity given to me by Vegakameratene really made my decision perfect, seeing that I’m able to compete at the highest level. It’s a really good package.
What do you think about our chances in the Main round?
After what I’ve seen this weekend, and we also played against Vegakameratene in the Nordic Futsal Cup, where we lost painfully..
.. in a spectacular futsal match, I think Vegakameratene and the national team have shown that they can compete at high international level. The players are physically very good, and the team really knows how to compete, and know what you have to do to be able to win a game. I think that’s the main strength of this team – it’s physically and mentally strong. During this weekend I’ve been surprised – in a positive way – how good tempo there is in training. Sometimes it might be that other international teams are tactically and technically way ahead of Nordic teams, but if we keep improving our technical and tactical skills I see a bright future for Nordic futsal.
Thanks for the interview, Panu, and good luck in Hungary!