Thirty-six-year old Gabriel Rapier grew up in the Central District, where soccer was a big part of his life—until, one day, it wasn't. "Soccer was too expensive," Rapier says of joining private teams, which can charge hundreds or thousands of dollars per season.
Now there's a type of street soccer—a more affordable option—gaining popularity in Seattle thanks to Rapier, a former librarian who's returned to his childhood neighborhood with futsal (pronounced FOOT-sol). It's a five-on-five game that's popular worldwide, with a smaller, heavier ball, on a handball-size court. Rapier has been approaching schools and after-school centers in an effort to bring everyone into the game, including kids in the Central District and Rainier Valley for whom private outdoor soccer teams are too expensive.
Futsal is "amazingly popular," says Leschi Elementary principal Rhonda Claytor, who brought Rapier on as a playground attendant (meaning the kids now play futsal at recess). And this year, Rapier worked with the city to transform one half of a dilapidated, largely unused tennis court at Judkins Park into a gleaming, gray-and-lime-green futsal court. With donated cans of paint, Rapier painted the whole thing over the summer, and he hopes it's the first of many futsal courts around the city. "That's what we're about," he says. "Showing people that you can play futsal for free or for a very nominal fee. You shouldn't have to pay to play soccer." In games, he's a startlingly agile goalkeeper, given his six-foot-five frame. When he's not blocking shots, he's shouting at the kids, encouraging and exhorting them to up their game. Last spring, Leschi and Bailey Gatzert Elementary hired him to offer twice-weekly after-school futsal sessions to students.
Rapier rattles off the benefits of futsal: Aside from it being cheaper than soccer, each player gets more touches on the ball (and chances for the glory that comes with scoring), injuries are rare, and the sport doesn't require lung-bursting athleticism or huge grass fields. The world's best, most creative professional soccer players—Messi, Ronaldo, Iniesta, to name a few—came up playing futsal. And many of the East African children of refugees who've settled in South Seattle, Rapier says, "don't play anything" else. "Our push is to open up this culture and organize it for all these communities," he says, "to ensure that there's not this institutionalizing and segregation and boxing out of potential players."