If it wasn't for futsal, I wouldn't be the player I am today.
The greatest soccer nations in the world are built on a futsal foundation. Small-sided soccer—futsal and street football—have served as building blocks for the vast majority of the sport's greatest. Ronaldinho, Pele, Messi, Neymar, Xavi, Ronaldo, the list goes on of football legends past and present who credit futsal for their development and success.
The fact is no surprise to soccer-loving fans throughout South America, Europe, and around the globe. For many in these regions, futsal isn't just a sport, it's a way of life. Take Brazil, the nation with the most number of World Cup and futsal titles. This is a country where you will find a futsal court on every block, at every public park, and in every grade school. People from all walks of life are exposed to the sport because it's built into the infrastructure of the city, and these vital spaces serve as a bedrock for social interaction.
Futsal is also widely acknowledged by football experts to be an essential factor in creating the elite player. Studies abound on the technical and tactical benefits of youth playing short-sided games, and across the board professionals cite futsal as not only a fundamental part of their development, but as a medium through which they discovered their personal style and love of the game. All of these elements have made it a hugely popular sport and a powerful cultural influence in Brazil and beyond.
Futsal (or fútbol sala in Spanish and futebol de salão in Portuguese) developed in South America beginning in 1930 as a solution for teams to train year-round during the rainy and cold seasons. The small field size was also ideal for crowded cities. Limited space in metropolitan areas back then, and even more so now, meant full-field pitches were difficult to come by.
From there, futsal exploded and evolved into a full-fledged sport in its own right. It was initially spread through the YMCA network, and matches were played indoors on basketball courts. They adopted rules from a variety of different sports, so there was five players on a team, a 40-minute match, and game play was inside the lines.
People quickly realized this was not like traditional soccer. This game was a high-intensity, lightning quick sport that demanded swift decision-making, a deft touch, and seamless teamwork—at all times. Unlike its full-field counterpart, futsal required every player be moving and alert constantly. There was no downtime. As a result, countless new iterations in tactical movement began to pop up, while individual skill level and technique went through the roof. Futsal was creating an entirely new echelon of football talent and thought.
Between 1960 to 1980, leagues began to form all over the world in countries like Spain, Russia, Portugal, Iran, and Japan, with South America remaining its spiritual home base and the primary continent where futsal would professionalize and bloom. It was adored and played by pros and amateurs alike, both because the game was fun and challenging, and because futsal courts were easier to find. It was simultaneously a refined, smart game and an activity for the masses. To this day, futsal continues to grow and change, as savvy coaches and inspired players generate new strategies, patterns, and formations.
A lot of the moves I make originate from futsal. It's played in a very small space, and the ball control is different in futsal. And to this day my ball control is pretty similar to a futsal player's control.
Over the years, futsal has become a key component in player development for both futsal and association athletes. Most full-field professionals competing at top levels grew up on a steady diet of futsal and street pickup, and the difference in caliber is unmistakable. Because the margin of error on a futsal court is so much smaller than a full field, this has often served as the best teacher for the young player's technical and tactical education.
So not only was futsal the most accessible method of play, it was also the best training format. The confines of the space and the small number of players led to a heavy, heavy reliance on teamwork. When you watch professional futsal matches, you see an ebb and flow, almost a choreography, that is only possible when all five players are shifting and working as a unit. At the same time, futsal provides pockets for individual showmanship. It's on the futsal court where you witness some of the most jaw-dropping tekkers, moves that shock and embarrass and sometimes defy physics. It comes as no surprise, then, that futsal has birthed the likes of Ronaldinho, Messi, Ronaldo, Falcao, Ricardinho, and many more.
Today, futsal is a highly competitive, worldwide sport that also continues to be a launchpad for 11-a-side professionals. All major European clubs contain a futsal component, and in the U.S., many Major League Soccer academies and competitive clubs have started to integrate futsal into their training.
In futsal, you see whether a player is really talented.
Futsal produces the best players in the world because it demands focus. Everything is magnified on the futsal court—a player’s touch, the set plays, a team’s movement. Quality is all that much more important when you have less time and less space, and it also becomes a lot more evident to the naked eye.
In Brazil, futsal is introduced at the earliest ages and played informally amongst kids and adults. One of the great things about growing up in a football nation like Brazil is that futsal courts are everywhere–no appointment or rental needed. Just hop in and start playing. Unsupervised play, outside of practice, where different age groups can co-mingle is a major, often overlooked factor that makes Brazil one of the most prolific producers of high-level footballers.
Futsal also provides more time on the ball per player than full-field soccer, requiring athletes to be activated physically and mentally throughout the game. The speed of play pushes athletes to be engaged in a continuous attack, defend, counterattack mindset, and the compact size of the field heightens the importance of skill and decision-making. There is, scientifically, more decisions, more goals, and more touches in futsal per minute than in traditional soccer.
Most importantly, futsal players develop an instinct for timing and movement on and off the ball. In futsal, you can't simply drive down the line at 100 miles per hour, and hope to be successful. Physicality is only one part of the futsal player. Intelligence and teamwork, on the other hand, are both a high priority. In futsal, you live and die by the work of your teammates. Their movement off the ball to draw defenders and create space is paramount.
As a player, you're also highly incentivized to have your head in the game at all times; when you lose the ball, you want to immediately transition to the defense because the counterattack is lethal. There's only four on the court, so your teammates are relying on you to be at your post, block defenders, open up the pitch, and so on. In futsal matches, the momentum can quickly shift if even one person begins to lose focus, and you do not want to be that player.
Futsal as Philosophy
At the highest level, futsal is something that separates the good from the brilliant. But perhaps more importantly, the game represents a culture of openness and connection that extends to the greater society. Too often in the U.S., we find barriers of entry to playing this beautiful game. Football fields are either difficult to find or expensive to rent while training camps and clubs are expensive and out of reach for many. This has not only stunted youth development in the sport, it has hindered our soccer culture from flourishing.
Futsal is one of those exceptional sports that require so little in terms of space and resources, yet generates an abundance of positive results. The community prospers from a healthy activity, while young footballers grow into remarkable players. That unmistakable daring spirit and outrageous confidence we see on the international stage is a byproduct of the sport, and it's something we would do well to strive for here at home.