If we were to mention a team sport with a huge player base in Czechia in which the national team has been immensely successful, even winning several world championship titles, would you know which one we mean? Minifootball! When I was discussing it with the executive director of the association regulating this sport, we agreed that even though it has “mini” in its name, it can often be more demanding than the “big” version.
Does it happen that when you talk about minifootball, people still see it as just a hobby, just “kicking the ball around”?
Sadly yes, that is an opinion we face daily. People often think we run some kind of junior leagues where you train for regular football. So we have to keep explaining to people that it is another thing entirely. That we are an independent, certified sport, and that we did not just “make it up”. That our sport has a big following – people are often in disbelief when they hear that there are over 60 thousand of us, making the sport the fourth biggest one in the country, in terms of the player base! That we have won many big tournaments, even the biggest ones like the European and world cups. I even heard someone say we are a “sport for people who cannot run the normal length of a football field”. But whoever has played both mini- and regular football knows just how challenging the mini version is. It is very dynamic, you keep changing direction, running in short bursts of speed, you are pretty much in constant motion with little to no rest.
I assume that very few people know that minifootball is organized, with its own leagues ad championships...
You are exactly right. Yes, it is an amateur sport, but organized in a professional way. Czechia has had organized competitions for 51 years now. The Minifootball Association has been around for about 20 years, and last April, we elevated it to a truly professional level. It only had one official body, the administrative board, similar to a board of directors in a publicly-traded company. And then there were the people it supervised who took care of different projects. But things were not really organized properly – nobody cared much about the financial, planning, or marketing side of things... About actually moving things forward in a meaningful and thought-out way. I do not mean to say that people had no interest in doing so, our association just was not ready in terms of finances. As soon as we got to a stage where we could afford an official body, things turned around rather quickly.
So you have officially registered clubs and players, a league system with promotions and relegations?
Let me come at this from another direction – I am sure you know Hanspaulka in Prague, as in “Hanspaulka League”...
Sure do, a household name!
It has eight league levels with over 1000 registered teams and 15 thousand players, the best of whom get drafted into the major league, essentially playing for two teams. The same system works in Pilsen, Příbram, Most, Ostrava, and many other places. There are twelve major league teams throughout the country, and their very best players make up the national team.
Would these be professional teams?
Oh no, minifootball is still an amateur sport at its core, and I dare say it will stay that way for some time yet. Which is a good thing. Having professional players is not what we are aiming for, people still do this sport on a friendly basis, purely because they enjoy it.
So all the equipment and other expenses are paid for out of pocket?
The material side of things is covered by the Association for the most part – it gets funding from the government and distributes it between the different leagues to make sure they can grow and that the funds really reach the teams and players who need them, without being swallowed up by a rampant official body.
Do you also work with the National Sports Agency?
Definitely! That is the authority that helps us run the way we do, it is responsible for 90 percent of our funding.
Does the Association run things nationwide?
Essentially, yes. There are currently seventeen regional sub-units, representatives of each unit make up the general assembly, the highest governing body. But we are missing a unit in southern Bohemia (the southernmost one is in Příbram). There are other regions where minifootball is being played, but they have not yet joined the Association. We have been in talks with them, and I feel confident that they will join us soon.
What will they gain by joining?
New championship options, for instance. Regional league winners qualify for the Czech National Cup, the winner of which advances to the European Champions League, while other successful teams go to the European League. Then we have the national team, of course. There is a European Cup set to take place in Košice this June, with one interesting feature – in the adult category, it will be the very first fully indoor European championship. It will be played in a hockey arena, and I am sure it will be an incredible event. What is more, there has been a two-year hiatus due to the Covid pandemic, and we absolutely want to repeat the 2018 season, which the Czech national team won, becoming European champions. By the way, we also won the World Cup the year prior in Tunisia. The U21 and U23 teams are also immensely successful. Other than the sports side of things, the Association can provide funding as well as the use of a newly developed IT system that facilitates regional administration online, and even a mobile app.
How did you get to be the director of the Association?
To start at the very beginning, I got into minifootball as a player, during my high school years in Příbram. I fell in love with the sport, and I enjoy it immensely to this day. I took interest in it and I found out that things are often not organized in associations. So I started a league in Pilsen. That is how I got into the organizational and structural side of things.
How does one start a league? Did you reach out to clubs around Pilsen?
Oh no. Minifootball did not exist in Pilsen. But I thought to myself, “If it works in other cities – often much smaller ones than Pilsen – why couldn't it work here?” I thought I had it all figured out and things would be easy, but reality hit me pretty hard. [laughs] But we made it. Through different public channels, we announced that there is a new minifootball league, starting in six months, playing at this and this time, in specific places, sign up if interested. Some enthusiastic people reached out, a few teams came together, and more followed. Sometime in late 2020, I received an offer to take part in establishing a professional official body and leading it. I was excited, I said yes right away. I had a vision of how to put everything together. There had to be technical, financial, IT, marketing departments, etc. We made all that happen. Sure, there are things that still need some work. Primarily the business side of things, we are having trouble finding private funding. We are hard at work on this, though, and I feel that it could be really interesting for investors, seeing how big of a following and player base minifootball has, and all the different championships we have won on an international level.
That would likely require more publicity, though. You said yourself that not many people really know about these European or world cup victories.
True. Nobody really cared about advertising the sport before, it was not deemed important. I felt that it was a shame, because how many team sports that are this successful do we have here in Czechia? So we fired up social media, upgraded the malyfotbal.cz website, and launched the New Identity campaign. Currently, the biggest project we are working on is the new IT system.
What are the things holding you back?
Missing infrastructure. There are very few fields made specifically for minifootball. We mostly play on universal astroturf fields where additional lines are drawn to refit them for minifootball, which is a little wonky and looks rather bad. Dedicated fields are more dignified. People often think we play in gymnasiums, but that is not quite right, there are very few indoor spaces that would work in Czechia. The vast majority of games are played outdoors, on artificial turf. They are often universal fields with lines drawn for many different sports. Fields meant specifically for minifootball are scarce, even though you can play it on pretty much any surface. Artificial grass is required on the highest level, however, it is an official standard.
Why not regular grass?
Mainly due to what we talked about previously in regards to minifootball – a lot of sharp direction changes, stopping quickly, dynamic movement. Grass simply cannot handle that.
So astroturf fields would be one of the uses for the private funding you talked about?
Definitely one of them.
By the way, are there also female teams?
Yes, but very few of them so far. Although, we are getting a lot of signals from ladies who play regular football that they would be interested in having a league or two. So it is something we have planned, but the mentioned private funding could really come in handy here, help us hire a person or a team to get things off the ground. Everyone we employ right now is working at full capacity. And the finances to hire more are just not there, unfortunately.
Seeing just how excited you are about the sport, I am guessing you would like to stick to minifootball for as long as you can...
Until I die, ideally. [laughs] We will see how things go in reality. But if the sport keeps growing, it would make all of us very happy.
Jan Pinkava (born October 31, 1991, in Příbram) is the executive director of the Czech Minifootball Association (see malyfotbal.cz).
He graduated in construction engineering from the Faculty of Civil Engineering at CTU Prague. During his school years, he started working for the construction department of the SES Bohemia Engineering planning office. Starting in 2017, he was in charge of new construction and remodelling projects at Tesco. He has been the CEO of the Czech Minifootball Association since 2021.
Pinkava is married, he and his wife (30) have a two-year-old daughter, Anna. His biggest hobbies are mini- and regular football, both active and passive, and organizing championships. He enjoys going to the gym, strives to keep constantly improving and to keep up with current events. He relaxes the best when he is with his family, he enjoys travelling and TV shows and movies about any subject but based on true stories.
What does the future hold for minifootball? On one hand, Jan Pinkava says he wants to avoid making it too professional and would like to keep it on an amateur level, on the other hand, however, the sport being at least partially professional could bring in more publicity, sponsorships, etc. “It is a very difficult matter, it brings a lot of internal turmoil for us,” confirms Jan. “We feel that if minifootball is to keep developing, there will have to be a certain professional element to it. So we are expecting it to happen eventually, at least at the highest level. But we would be really happy to see it remain on a friendly basis in the lower leagues. That is what excited us about the sport initially, playing some football, meeting people who have similar interests even though their backgrounds can vary wildly. But getting along as people, grabbing a beer after the game.”