Can futsal help create a new breed of English footballer?

Our international team never delivers in major tournaments and the man asked to change it all has been sacked for dodgy dealings after just one game. It’s clear that our national game needs to change. Is Futsal – the most popular sport in the whole of Brazil – the answer to the FA’s problems? 

English football seems to be on the decline. In big competitions, the national team constantly disappoints. After the embarrassing defeat to Iceland this summer, there has only been 4 wins from 15 games in major tournaments since failure to qualify for Euro 2008.

In 2007, 2008 and 2009, three of England’s top four teams were in the semi-final of the Champions League. Since then, an English side has only reached that stage on four occasions. The European big boys – Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus – are a league above England’s best teams.

The development of the Premier League and the significant influence of foreign coaches and players have changed the landscape and culture of English football so much that it is almost unrecognisable in comparison to the early 1990s. European and international football, the arena in which young English players must compete, has excelled massively.

So, what needs to change? In comparison to other high-performing countries at international level, it seems as though English football lacks a DNA, or a clear vision for their style of play and development of talented young players. So, in 2010, The FA launched ‘The Future Game’, a Technical Guide for Young Player Development.

This guide was supposed to produce a new vision for young players. It will hope to produce technically excellent and innovative players with exceptional decision-making skills. Out of possession, the philosophy calls for a tactical approach to defending in which all players contribute.

I have been playing amateur grassroots football since 2005. I have not noticed any change in the coaching of young players since my first match at 11-a-side level. The mantra for young defenders – as shouted by most British coaches on Saturday mornings – is, “if in doubt, GET IT OUT”. In other words, hoof the ball as far as possible away from your own goal. Make sure you don’t give it away.

The problem with grassroots football in England is the obsession with winning. Instead of teaching our young players the beauty of recycling possession and one-twos, which breed confidence in each other as a team, we are told to never take risks. The curiosity and excitement of trying new things is drummed out of players from a young age, and a fear of mistakes or costing your team a match means you feed into this boring, one-dimensional style of play which never seems to work on the international stage for the national team.

Compare this to Spain, where if a young football team keep 80% possession, plays brilliant football, but loses 1-0 in an amateur youth match – they get clapped off the pitch.

This is where futsal could come in.

futsal-court

Small-sided with a smaller pitch and a deadened ball, futsal is more than just 5-a-side football and can instil confidence in players – both on and off the ball.

Because of the smaller pitch, there is a reliance on a good knowledge of tactics and an ability to mark your man defensively.

The ball has less bounce; so on the attack, it is mainly kept on the floor, passing is quick and footwork can be even quicker. The small goals mean that pinpoint finishing is crucial and follow ups for ‘keeper spills can reap rewards.

brazil-futsal

According to data from the Brazilian government, futsal is the most popular sport in the whole of Brazil.

Over half of the 2014 Brazilian World Cup squad were on the books of futsal teams when they were younger. Pele, Maradona, Ronaldinho and Neymar are all massive supporters of the sport.

“Futsal makes you think fast and play fast,” Pele said to the BBC at the World Cup, “You try things, it makes you dribble. It makes you a better player.”

High praise from – arguably – the best player to ever play football.

But, will the FA listen to the great Pele? Can they bring in futsal to improve England’s footballing talent?

In 2012, an 87% majority in the FA voted in favour of making small-sided formats for certain age-groups mandatory, an indicator that they may be looking towards the influence of futsal to improve grassroots football all over the country. An FA statement said, “The smaller pitch and number of players allows greater number of touches of the ball and involvement in the game, helping develop greater technical skills at a lower age.”

Research conducted by the FA found that 84% of those involved in grassroots football cited poor facilities as their main concern. Futsal is an indoor sport, meaning that issues of unsuitable pitches and poor weather will not impact on a child’s ability to play. There would also be no shouts of “don’t worry boys, we’ve got the wind in the second half” or “knock it over the top we’ve got the pace to beat ‘em in behind”, which everyone has heard at least a billion times at youth level.

However, futsal is not always seen as a gateway to football. I spoke to former Barcelona futsal player Ernest Cardona in Sheffield where he is coaching FA National Futsal Super League North side, Sheffield FC. Watching as he takes his training session, I notice how agile the players are and how quickly they move. Everyone seems to know where they are supposed to be defensively, only a brilliant bit of footwork or some lightning quick precision passing seems to be able to break down a stubborn defence. It is mesmerising to watch.

Ernest says futsal and football are poles apart, “I don’t believe that futsal can help football to develop. Small-sided football can help, but I think futsal and football are different sports so we don’t need to mix them.

I think small sided games can help to develop the football players because in Spain they start playing with small games, like 7 against 7 or maybe 5 against 5 but it’s arguably not futsal. So I don’t think you need to use futsal to develop the skills, you need to use 5-a-side games when training young kids and teach them that they need to pass the ball, that they need to learn their skills, and all this stuff – but not necessarily play futsal.”

This may be the view of a futsal purist, but it seems hard to deny that the skills you can learn from futsal will not impact a player’s footballing technique.

At the time of writing, Spain’s futsal team are ranked number two in the world. When asked about why futsal is so big in Spain, Ernest said it is all about starting young, “All the kids, they start playing futsal at school because in every school you have futsal goals, so they start in the playground playing there and then in the school team they play futsal too. Maybe it’s not as big as football because it does not appear too much on TV, but we still have like 2/3 games a week on TV, public TV as well! There is a lot of passion and it’s probably increasing which is really, really good for the future of futsal.”

England does not have the same passion for futsal. It is on the rise, but with participation previously so low, it is not difficult to increase numbers. In October last year, the England futsal team went through to the main round of Qualifying for the FIFA Futsal World Cup for the first time in its history.

Ranked 58th in the World, England’s futsal team are on the up – but they lost all their matches in the qualifying rounds, meaning that they came bottom of their group and did not make it through to the World Cup Finals proper. The FA will have to hope that England can make history and qualify for the Futsal Euro 2018, to help to inspire a generation of young, technically-gifted English players.

It is clear that grassroots football needs to change to improve the quality of English football talent and ultimately English football teams. But, will it be the introduction of futsal that creates a new possession-based, free flowing English football DNA? Over to you, FA.

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