In recent years, Australian football has been in a desperate search to find a system to help make our national team more successful in world football. The progression of our 2006 team to the second round of the World Cup had the nation’s sporting public placing Guus Hiddink on a pedestal and the governing body looking to embrace all things Dutch. There was an overhaul of the National Curriculum and coaching education, with everyone needing to fall into line, to ensure the future had players all reading from the same book and capable of playing as directed by accredited coaches.
But what if players progressing still lacked basic technical ability or, more importantly, the necessary X factor to be able to turn a game with a piece of individual brilliance?
This is where the game of futsal can play a vital role in a player’s development. The 5-a-side version of football played on a small court, with a ball more forgiving than an outdoor ball, has no peer in playing a part in many of the world’s greatest players lives. It rewards the same basic skills, knowledge and tactics of the outdoor version but is played at a much faster pace, requiring greater ball control and technique whilst placing players under constant pressure. Speed of thought and rapid adaption to circumstances is key to playing futsal successfully and these qualities have been trained into many of the greats of football through their grounding in futsal.
“During my childhood in Portugal, all we played was futsal, the small playing area helped me improve my close control, and whenever I played futsal I felt free. If it wasn’t for futsal, I wouldn’t be the player I am today.” Christiano Ronaldo.
“In Futsal, you need to think quick and play quick, so it’s easier for you when you move to normal football.” Pele.
“Futsal is extremely important for kids developing skills and understanding. My touch and dribbling came from playing Futsal.” Ronaldinho.
“As a little boy in Argentina I played Futsal on the streets and for my club, it was tremendous fun and it really helped me become who I am today.” Lionel Messi.
“Futsal had a massive influence on me when I was growing up. It’s a very demanding game and it really helped to develop my technique, speed of thought, and ability to perform moves in tight spaces. I think futsal is a fundamental part of a footballer’s life.” Neymar Jnr.
All the quotes above come from some of the most technically gifted players of our time and all attribute futsal to playing a major part in their development as a footballer. Many only played futsal up until their teenage years without ever playing competitive outdoor football and still had no trouble transitioning the skills learnt from the indoor court to the field.
With the 2 touch rule, whereby back passes to goalkeepers are restricted, futsal encourages attacking play and constant involvement from all participants. Attackers must always be an option for teammates in possession of the ball and be looking to find space on the court, while defenders must track runners and take up positions to limit scoring opportunities. No player can hide on the court and they quickly learn that they each have attacking and defensive responsibilities if their team is to succeed. Players in futsal can average up to 6 times more touches on the ball than they have in outdoor football per minute. More touches mean an increased rate of skill acquisition.
Another key component is the counter attack. A team is most susceptible to conceding when they turn over the ball to the opposition while committing players forward in attack. Futsal teaches rapid one touch counter attacks and movement into space which are vital to ensure goals are scored on the break. Alternatively, it also teaches players that defenders need to react quickly to position themselves to make these opportunities difficult for your opposition.
All of the players quoted earlier possess an incredible ability to beat an opponent, one v one, and this is where futsal has been proven the best means to creating skilful players. You will often be forced to receive a pass in pressure situations with few options available, or be forced to play out of defence while being pressed from the opposition. It is being placed in these positions constantly that help players develop the skill and confidence required to become the best critical thinkers they can be when pressured.
Many techniques used in futsal have been frowned upon by coaches of outdoor football, such as sole of the foot control or rolling of the ball, but they are readily on display by some of the greatest dribblers in the world. Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Ronaldinho all use futsal techniques to get the better of an opponent. Also, Ibrahimovic will often receive the ball with the sole of his foot when backing into defenders. Many of these skills don’t feature in our current outdoor coaching curriculum but are the making of some of the best players of the modern era and have proven extremely effective in outdoor football.
Even the great Johan Cruyff was an advocate for kids to learn the game of football with flat soled shoes on a hard surface. This would force them to stay on their feet as much as possible and help improve their balance while performing dribbling and skills.
I have heard of young players being derided by high level SAP and Youth League coaches for playing too much futsal at a young age, even when it is only used as an offseason enjoyable past time. As evidenced by the greats above, futsal should be the main source of footballing education if you want the greatest chance of success. Surely the virtues of futsal have been proven by the greats of our game who regard it as their grounding and, even closer to home, Australia’s best dribbler at present and one of our most technically gifted players, Tom Rogic, played futsal for Australia at 18 years of age. It has obviously done his career no harm.
So as we continue our search to decide what path would give Australia its best chance at World Cup success, perhaps we should start by appreciating the vital role futsal can play in creating the players necessary to do so.