The English FA’s website wonders plaintively how players such as Luis Figo, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Robinho and Roberto Carlos managed to “develop skills that set them apart… What did they do as youngsters that provided them with the basis to becoming some of the world’s best players?” Reading this you might think that the FA are about to reveal new plans for youth development. But the article continues: “If you are interested in the answer then you need to learn more about a game called futsal.”
This, as you may be aware, is a bit like five-a-side. The FA, staggeringly, highlights the differences thus: “The differences to our traditional versions of small-sided football are the absence of rebound boards and some slight amendments in the laws that favour skilful, creative play above the physical contact that tends to be a feature of English five-a-side.” But the benefits of futsal don’t stop at the fact that there’s nothing to smash your opponent into around the side of the pitch and a smaller, heavier ball. It’s like most small-sided games in that space is confined, the emphasis is on technique and movement, not physicality, and it requires you to be pretty fit and tactically aware.
The best thing about futsal, though, is that it’s a global game and the emphasis is on speed, skill and finesse. Footballers in England do play small-sided games as part of their development but I suspect they probably don’t play enough of them, and that by the time all the lads who can kick it really hard have been filtered from a crop of 12-year olds, they’ll be playing big-boy, 11-aside football until they’re approaching 40. So this quote from Deco – “I played [futsal] from the age of nine until I was 16 when I had to stop to go on with my football career. It improved my speed and dribbling skills” – should alert the FA to futsal’s possibilities.
The game was created in South America in the 1930s, with International Federation for Futebol de Sala (FIFUSA) founded in Brazil in 1971. The first world champions, perhaps inevitably, were Brazil, who fielded an illustrious selection of players from their 11-aside game, including Pelé, Zico, Rivelino and Falcão. In 1989, following a dispute with FIFUSA over administration, FIFA set up its own World Cup, also won by Brazil, and coined the name futsal in the process.
The fourth FIFA World Championship in Guatemala City in 2000 was won by Spain, partly the result of a development plan that began in 1996 when UEFA, recognising futsal’s increasing popularity across Europe in the early 1990s, arranged a European tournament for national teams in Cordoba. This was also won by the Spain, who have won four of the six tournaments since. England do have a futsal team. Their record, since the first international in 2006, is P50, W7, D3, L40. Their history includes shoeings by Poland (16-0), Hungary (15-0) and Azerbaijan (11-0), and smaller, but no less ignominious, defeats to Cyprus, Libya, Indonesia, Malaysia, Kazakhstan and Macedonia.
As you might gather, the development of futsal in England has been stunted. “Until the introduction of the first official national championships organised by the FA in July 2003,” the documentation on the website continues, “ it had been left to individual groups of futsal pioneers to develop the game in their local areas, venturing abroad when they could to play the game at a more advanced level.”
The FA's online futsal-fact-sheet approvingly cites the game’s promotion of “Fair Play” and the alarmingly titled “Exit Routes”, which refer to the fact that you can play futsal in a league or a cup – or even for club or country, should you decide there aren’t enough opportunities in “traditional five a-side”. Essentially, however, futsal is a second or third choice behind full-scale matches and “English small-sided games”.
It is a mystery why futsal appears to be seen as a separate entity rather than a shining example to 11-a-side football and why it isn't used, as it is in other countries, as an “aspect of youth development”. More touches, tight spaces, close control, attacking improvisation, speed of thought and reflexes – futsal’s main traits are surely desirable attributes for any player. Once again the FA are seen to be lagging behind the rest of the world.