19th October 2008. Rio De Janeiro hosts the World Cup Final between Brazil and reigning champions Spain. End-to-end football, moments of outrageous pieces of skill and fantastic goals result in a 2-2 draw. A tense penalty shoot-out follows, with the hosts keeping their nerve to win and regain the World title, their fourth in all. The celebrations on Copacabana beach go on long into the night.
Hang on a minute, I hear you say. Firstly, there wasn’t a World Cup in 2008. Secondly, Brazil don’t host it until 2014. Thirdly, Spain didn’t win it until 2010. And finally, Brazil won their 5th back in 2002! Of course, you are right. But I’m talking about a different kind of football, one that goes by the name of Futsal. A form of football which I believe could be a key ingredient in the make-up of a successful international football side.
Despite currently sitting fourth in the FIFA World Rankings and seemingly on-course for qualification to next year’s European Championships, the reality of England’s international history paints a very different picture. Earlier this summer, Stuart Pearce’s Under 21 side was eliminated from the European Championships without so much as a whimper. Twelve months ago, the senior side did the same in South Africa. Two years prior, defeat to Croatia meant elimination in Euro qualifying. In the 2006 World Cup…. I think you get the picture. Every time a major international tournament takes place, the result is the same; an England side fails.
The aftermath of each failure is pretty much the same. First, the finger is pointed at the manager; the overpaid Swede, the ‘Wally with the Brolly’ or The Italian who has no clue. Then, the familiar rant of ‘we play too many games’ is brought up, with people ignoring the fact that most of the players in England’s top domestic teams are from foreign shores! This brings me on to the third shout, the one where too many foreign players are blocking the development of young English talent.
Instead of all the finger-pointing and apportioning blame, the focus should instead be concentrated on those countries that are in fact winning the major tournaments. England’s main attributes are more physical rather than technical, with players strong, athletic and often with pace to burn. If they possess technical ability, then it is classed as a bonus. On the other hand, Spain – the current champions at World, European, Under-21s and probably every competition they enter – class technique as the number one attribute. At all levels, every one of the Spanish squad is comfortable with the ball at his feet. Most of their players stand at less than 6ft tall, quashing the notion that you have to be big and strong to play football. Brazil, although not as good as in previous years, follow the same philosophy; Technique, Technique, Technique.
So what is Futsal and where does it fit in?
The name Futsal is derived from the Portuguese “futebol de salão” and the Spanish “fútbol de salón”. Roughly translated, it means indoor football. Like the traditional 5-a-side played up and down the UK, Futsal is mostly played indoors, with a handful of players on each side. However, there are a number of important differences. Firstly, Futsal is played over two 20-minute halves, with rolling substitutions allowing players to enjoy rest periods. There are no walls or rebound boards, with touchlines and by-lines used. The ball is returned to play via kick-ins, corner-kicks or
goal clearances. There is no height restriction on the ball and players are allowed anywhere on the pitch, including both penalty areas. The goals are
squarer than normal at 3m x 2m. The most important difference is the ball, which is smaller than normal at size 4 and heavier meaning 30% less bounce. The game is geared towards technique, with the emphasis on improvisation and creativity.
Having just signed up to my local Futsal league, I can see how growing up playing this version of football would result in more technically gifted players. With the pitch small and goals relatively big, possession is key. Everything is done at blistering speed and with space at a premium, a good first touch is crucial. A player must have a trick or two in his armoury in order to work openings for a pass or a shot. There are no defensive tactics where a team sets out to stifle their opposition. There is no hoofing of the ball, and with contact minimal there is no advantage to be gained from being a stone stronger or a foot taller than your opposition. It is all out creativity and invention.
With the English national team ranked a lowly 87th in the World, Futsal is still in its infancy in the UK. By contrast, it is a major sport over many parts of the world, with national leagues in over 50 countries. It is hugely popular in Brazil with crowds flocking to the custom made Futsal stadiums. Brazilian legends such as Pele, Rivelino, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, have all partly attributed their success to the basics they learnt playing Futsal as a child. Brazil is also the home to the most famous and best Futsal player in the world, Alessandro Rosa Vieira, also known as Falcão. A quick search of YouTube will show you exactly why he is rated as the greatest.
Since 1989, FIFA has formally recognised Futsal as a sport, with World Cups staged every four years. There is even talk of it being included in future Olympics. Brazil lead the way with four world titles, whilst Spain have two. The likes of Netherlands, Italy, Portugal and Argentina have all finished in the top four places on at least one occasion. In the current FIFA Futsal World rankings, the top three reads; 1) Spain, 2) Brazil, 3) Italy – the last three winners of the FIFA World Cup. A coincidence? I don’t think so.
So, next time England fail at a major tournament – probably June/July 2012 then – the finger of blame shouldn’t be pointed at the manager, the amount of games played or the foreigners who ply their trade in the Premier League. Instead, a change of philosophy should be adopted at grass roots level. Just like in Spain and Brazil, youngsters should be taught to respect the ball, to love it and to not give it away cheaply. The introduction of Futsal to the masses would be a good way to start.