For too long now, the England national team has been in the shadow of the great football nations. Futsal can bring the change we all want to see.
Muddy pitches. Long punts. Torrential rain. Hard tackles. Running your b***s off. For decades, English football has been about how far you can run, how strong you are and how you can boot and barge your way to victory on the football pitch.
But you don’t need to look that closely at England’s international record to realise that it’s not enough just to be big, strong and powerful. If you want to play – and succeed – at the very top level you have to be fit, of course, but you also have to have a high level of technical ability. Running is not enough.
If you’re going to look to improve, then look to improve from the best.
“In Brazil, almost every football club starts with futsal. It is like a cultural sport, everyone plays futsal when they are a child. So clubs like Sao Paolo, Corinthians, Palmeras, Flamenco usually have futsal and 11-a-side,” said Brazilian Alex Ferro, Head Coach at Helvecia Futsal Club in London.
Futsal? Developed in the sports halls of Uruguay during the 1930s and quickly spreading across the South America to some of the world’s biggest footballing nations such as Brazil and Argentina. Futsal is similar to football but is played five versus five, usually indoors on a wooden floor and with a smaller ball that bounces a lot less than a football.
It’s the antithesis of the hard tackle culture that breeds plenty of players such as Liverpool and England’s Jordan Henderson and precious few Neymars. Athletes rather than artists. Runners rather than dancers. Ronaldinho, Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, Maradona, Xavi and Iniesta are just some of the players who grew up playing futsal. And let’s be honest: we can only wish for players of that calibre to be pulling on a three lions shirt anytime soon.
Having fewer players on each team, futsal encourages more touches of the ball, which inevitably will lead to a player becoming more comfortable with the ball at his or her feet. “Futsal I think brings something special. Players need to think faster, they need to play faster, they need to be very aware of their surroundings,” said Ferro. “Players have to be constantly moving, showing themselves as a passing option to their teammates.”
The pitch is small, meaning you have less time to make a decision and you certainly can’t just kick it and run. This encourages players to play with a faster tempo, to think fast in order not to lose possession and pass the ball on the floor.
“Playing on a smaller pitch makes the intensity of futsal very, very high and when people make the transition from futsal to 11-a-side, we have seen players bring this intensity from futsal into their 11-a-side game,” said George Baldwin, Chelsea U9’s academy coach.
Also, by playing indoors with a flat soled shoe, this encourages players to use different parts of their feet.
“Contact with different areas of your foot is very important in football,” said Jermaine Jenas, former England international and Tottenham Hotspurs midfielder. “I came through a system at Nottingham Forrest where players were not allowed to use the outside of the foot. They were coached at a professional level not to use different parts of their foot.”
In England, at the grassroots level where I have played and coached – often dads – encourage players to “get rid”, “boot it” or “just kick it” because they are scared to lose. Futsal looks to develop the technical skills that can lay the foundations for a player who has real technical ability, not just good physical attributes.
As Reece Parara, Crystal Palace U9 academy coach, said: “Futsal is about developing players to be creative, rather than a typical English player who maybe launches the ball and just works hard, which seems to be an identity of football players throughout the country, unfortunately.”
Turnstyles Football Academy was set up in 2010 by Nathan Eno. He’d never played for futsal, but through research into Brazilian football, he realised how much of a benefit it can have on developing technical young players.
“At Turnstyles, up until the age of eight, players will only play futsal during the winter. This has multiple benefits such as removing the horrible weather factor away from playing to keep the kids happy and engaged.”
Other academies such as Escolla Futsal, Samba Futsal, Futsal Elite and ProFutsal London also exist. These academies are usually set up by people who have experienced futsal either by playing or coaching abroad and have seen the benefits that this sport can bring to young players in this country.
Abbie Savvaris, parent of former Turnstyles player and current Crystal Palace U9 player Orlando Savvaris said: “We got lucky when we searched for an academy in London for my oldest son, Rio, and we stumbled upon Turnstyles with the Brazilian theme with the futsal and it all made sense for us, the samba, the futsal and the skill.
“I struggled to find any futsal or football academies in London because English football is the complete opposite from the Brazilian style.”
If futsal is the answer, then why hasn’t England embraced it more fully? “I think because the English didn’t create it. We are very stubborn in our ways. We do not like to adapt,” said Reece Parara.
Changing a culture takes time, especially when that culture is as deeply entrenched – as that “get rid”, “boot it” or “just kick it” culture is. The long ball to the big man up top, trying to win the flick on and playing off second balls. These traits that are so deeply embedded in our football DNA but are not helping us produce players that can play at the highest level. These characteristics are also the complete opposite of what futsal can teach a player.
“It is also slight coaching arrogance, thinking that we can do more stuff can the game can teach. I feel like a lot of drills can improve technique, can improve all the skills that futsal helps with, however, futsal puts it into a game environment. Whereas if you put it into a repetition drill working on your not getting the same benefit I don’t think because I think the application of the skill in a game situation will help the kids learn much faster,” said Baldwin.
There’s a growing futsal scene in the England, and the FA National Futsal League’s North and South host the best teams in the country that play regular fixtures and compete throughout the season. But to effect real change, things have got to start earlier.
Getting futsal on the national curriculum would be a great first step to raising the profile of the sport. We play a range of alternative sports during our PE lessons, from table tennis to volleyball. We already have the infrastructure to get kids playing it in our schools. So, why are we not playing futsal in it in every primary school and secondary school in the country already?
Ben Tadmor, FA Futsal Tutor and England Futsal U23’s coach, said: “I think there’s a place for futsal, primary schools have facilities, they have netball courts, they’ve got half-courts, it’s a brilliant opportunity.”
For futsal to grow in this country we need to raise more awareness of the sport. Still, so many people who would say they are involved in football have never even heard of it or know what it is. Once our children become familiar with futsal and kids want to play it outside of school, when they want to take it more seriously, then we will have made real progress because futsal has to become a sport in its own right. There has to be a clear pathway for children to grow up playing football and futsal together, but if they want to choose futsal to pursue, then they can.
If we can get futsal on the national curriculum, in every school, then there will be a demand for more futsal teams, leagues, tournaments and academies. Then we will start to see the true benefits of futsal for developing more technical players and only then will we realise what we have been missing out on. And only then might the England football team start to be the England football team we want it to be.