FOOTBALL HAS AND ALWAYS WILL BE a game of contrasting styles, evolving philosophies of play and trendy paradigms that captivate the world only to be emulated, bastardized, found out, and written off as obsolete. There was a day when direct, Route One football was all the rage (for some, it’s still the default style). We’ve seen the magic oftotaalvoetbal, the efficiency of gegenpressing, the security of catenaccio, the flair of tiki taka, and the blunt effectiveness of what some have come to call anti-football, or more popularly, “parking the bus”.

I’ve always contended that styles and systems of play don’t expire – players do. Football, being the organic and evolutionary sport that it is, is often judged by enigmatic teams who ride a system’s success until it’s found out. But, something else is at play that might yet shed some light as to why some teams, primarily out of COMEBOL and CONCACAF played some of the best football in the World Cup just finished. The ‘something else ‘is futsal.

Futsal is a variation of football played on a small court (usually indoors) that has long since been ignored in countries that have struggled to establish themselves in both international and club football. In the United States it’s simply indoor soccer, in Great Britain it’s five-a-side but there’s a profound difference. For example, in the United States, indoor soccer is played with walls which ultimately take away from the purpose of emphasizing technique and ball control. With the walls, players with poor technique, tunnel vision, and who would never excel without the walls eliminate much of skill required to flourish.

Futebol de salão (Futsal) has its origins in Montevideo, Uruguay, when, in 1930, Juan Carlos Ceriani, a professor of Physical Education devised a five-a-side version of football for youth competition in YMCAs that combined the rules of water polo, basketball, handball, and of course, football. He drafted the original set of rules that regulated the sport. Coming off the Uruguay’s victory at the inaugural World Cup, the sport flourished in South American countries – predominately Brazil where grass pitches were scarce, but impoverished favelas and barrios played football in the streets constantly.

But what makes futsal such an anomaly outside of South America? I asked a colleague of mine from Brazil with whom I played collegiately about his upbringing in São Paulo with regards to futsal. Growing up, Marco Dos Santos told me before he played for the youth teams of São Paulo Futebol Clube, Força Esporte Clube, and Nacional Atlético Clube his development was lodged heavily in futsal. He said, “Futsal is part of our culture! Every soccer player grew up playing futsal. When you’re younger futsal was the type of football that you’d start playing. The hard court, small heavy ball, smaller goals, and it being four outfield players plus a goalkeeper challenge a player’s technique.  As you know the game is played in a fast pace with a lot of transitions and constant communication by all players on the court.”

The takeaways are obvious, but the real crux of what futsal instils into young players is the transitional play and understanding that they are always involved in the play. There is no stopping. Futsal requires players to think two to three steps ahead of the play in a condensed area where they often must pass their way out of trouble or dribble to retain possession. There is no hoofing the ball down the court.

“Players need to be skilful and fast-thinking. They need good timing and know that the game transitions every play so they must defend and attack over and over. And they must be comfortable working in tight spaces and be really fit. The difference between countries that are great football countries and those are not is simple: people would play every day for as long as they could! Kids play before and after school, lunch breaks, on our club teams, and most of all, kids play on their own for hours and hours. The reason all the big time players in Brazil are so good and skilful is directly because of futsal…. Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Robinho, Neymar, Rivaldo, Diego, Oscar, Kaká and many more. Anyone can look them up and find videos of them playing futsal at a small age!”

To the outside world looking at Brazilian football, especially with the World Cup, all of what Marco says isn’t unknown, but its application seems to be lost in translation until quite recently. Marco’s message reveals more about the game than a description of footballing variant, however.

“I played all the time, on my own, with friends, my brother, club team, in the street, in my apartment complex. No excuses. Our birthday parties become futsal parties; we played at school as much as I could and any time I could. The game requires so much from you. Getting comfortable with the small ball on your feet and letting it stick on your feet is an ability that you develop from futsal and transfer to outdoor football on a bigger pitch.”

Accessibility is a key differentiator in connecting the developmental divide between countries that produce technically adept players compared with those that do not. In Brazil, for example, more people tend to play futebol de salão than conventional football for a variety of reasons. One important reason being the availability of pitches for recreational use in Brazil is staggeringly low compared to that of futsal courts. But futsal isn’t exclusive to Brazilian football development.

In the United States, the sport is arguably the key to developing a technically proficient generation of American players. Right now, American players don’t have the technical ability to be considered exceptional talents. According to my discussion with US National Futsal Coach, Keith Tozer, who has deep roots in the American indoor game, the United States is really a futsal mecca – we just don’t know it yet.

The sport is taking hold in the United States with Tozer leading the charge. He cites the conversion of seldom and unused tennis courts in urban areas like Los Angeles to futsal courts being one of many steps in the indoctrination of the game in America. “The United States Soccer Federation has bought into futsal and by targeting talent and working closely with the U.S. Soccer Development Academy program to stress the importance of concentrated, technical development. But U.S. Youth Futsal values the grassroots level player, which is essential. We focus on the young ages – immerse the kids early because kids, in futsal want to be creative.”

Keith Tozer wasn’t shy about the fact that the best players in the world played futsal. “If you look at a futsal player, they play freely. They don’t have names for their moves because it’s part of the game. Futsal players who find themselves in trouble with the ball don’t panic, they don’t go backwards. They find a way through. That’s unique to futsal. You put a kid on a field, he or she will want to go backwards to the goalkeeper or hit the ball out of bounds. Not so much in futsal.”

Another aspect of futsal that appeals to the world and hasn’t yet caught on in the United States is futsal is an inexpensive game. It requires a weighted ball, a basketball court – which there’s no shortage of in the U.S. – and players stay involved during the game. The ratio of playing time to touches on the ball is almost five times what the average player gets in the conventional game. Young players from both urban and suburban environments with little-to-no experience playing organised football show dramatic improvement in not only their technique, but their comfort on the ball in not a matter of weeks or months playing – but in a matter of hours.

“An accomplished golfer hits thousands of golf balls a week in practice – perfecting their technique,” Tozer says. “When it’s time to compete, they’re only hitting the ball a fraction of that amount. You do the math. Repetition is part of futsal. The number of not only touches, but quality touches on the ball a player receives is astounding compared to the outdoor game.”

What Tozer says isn’t rocket science, but it’s absolutely spot-on. Players cannot improve without repetition and gaining confidence on the ball. They need to play on faster surfaces to increase their speed of play and it’s simply not happening in American soccer at the moment – at any level.

There’s no secret that Brazil leads the way in the futsal world but according to Tozer, the United States isn’t as far off as many think. The reality is countries like the United States and Great Britain have a copious amount of players who lack the requisite amount of the time required to be technically comfortably and creative on the football – but they do have access to courts or facilities where they could play futsal. The trick is recognising what works in Uruguay, Brazil, and many Latin American countries, who enjoyed a wonderful showing at the World Cup, and using that knowledge effectively without branding the game and filtering out an entire generation and socio-economic class of players by trying to sell the game to them at wholesale prices. As Tozer correctly points out, futsal is the people’s game – which is why some of the poorest countries have the richest amount of talent in abundance.

So, what’s the proof that futsal could help transform a country’s football outside of South America? Spain. The country many saw as the Europe’s great underachievers have been the team with the target on their back with regards to the national side winning two European titles and a World Cup – that’s real progress. Spain is a nation with its own dedicated futsal leagues broken down in a pyramidal hierarchy as follows: Primera División de Futsal, Segunda División, Segunda División ‘B’ and Tercera División.

Each division below the Segunda División has groups with teams representing each of Spain’s regions competing in an open system with promotion and relegation, and cup competitions. So, since the formation of the established futsal leagues in 1989, Spanish futsal has been instrumental in the country’s player development and we’ve seen a generation of players redefine possession football to great effect. If we’re going to talk hard metrics, think about the number of teams competing in each lower division trying to gain promotion. The Segunda División ‘B’ has approximately 147-150 teams while the Tercera División houses upwards of 337 teams. In total, the country’ has around 520 active professional and semi-professional futsal teams. The amateur teams amount to the thousands and futsal is used as both a primary and supplementary tool for total football development.

These numbers indicate the obvious need for re-evaluation of the nation’s game by the Spanish Football Federation. The world has also seen one of the best generations of footballers stake a claim as the best national side ever, despite their disastrous World Cup run this year. The next generation of players in the Spanish system are not only fully indoctrinated into the futsal culture, but they’ve learned the best and worst lessons the current and outgoing generation of tiki taka specialists has proffered – and it won’t be long until the next iteration of La Furia Roja begins passing their way back to the summit of world football.

The question remains, what other countries are going to figure this out, and when? After all, it’s a simple game in the most complex of ways.

By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3