SUMMARY: Have you ever wondered why Brazil has dominated world soccer over richer European nations? Is the reason poverty? Is it because Brazilians are naturally more graceful? Or is because of a secret “training game” that the rest of the world simply doesn’t know – until now? And could their secret be replicated in the AFL?

Background:

Heritier Lumumba (formerly known as Harry O'Brien)

Heritier Lumumba (formerly known as Harry O’Brien)

Five World Cup triumphs (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002) and three FIFA Confederations Cups (1997, 2005, 2009) have justifiably given Brazil the status as the greatest nation ever to have taken a soccer field and made Brazilian sides throughout modern history, no matter how relatively weak or strong, the benchmark for soccer excellence.

Brazil are the only national team to have played in every World Cup and the only team to have won the championship in four different continents; once in Europe (1958 Sweden), once in South America (1962 Chile), twice in North America (1970 Mexico and 1994 United States) and once in Asia (2002 Korea/Japan).

Their success is even more remarkable when you consider political infighting had prevented them from fielding a full-strength side until 1950.

Such has been their dominance in the global arena, a common Brazilian quip about soccer is: “Os ingleses o inventaram, os brasileiros o aperfeiçoaram”, meaning “The English invented it, the Brazilians perfected it”.

Brazil’s status as the world’s greatest soccer nation is not in question. They have been the benchmark in world soccer for over 60 years.

The mystery however, is how they got there.

How has an impoverished nation like Brazil managed for so long to rise to the top and dominate the rich European countries, who literally pour billions of dollars into talent development and soccer schools each year?

How have they produced more professional players than any other country, including iconic stars such as Pele, Rivelino, Zico, Juminho, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and more?

And why do their players always seem to play with such sublime skills and move with such graceless poetry?

Some speculate their success comes from something inherently creative in the blood of the Brazilian players, something magical in their souls. Others are rather less mystical in their explanation, citing the poverty in the favelas (slums) and the economic imperative of reaching the top in football.

The reason as it turns out could be something a lot less magical and a lot more scientific.

The Secret of Brazilian Soccer

In the summer of 1997, a tall charismatic primary school teacher and soccer coach from England fulfilled a lifelong dream and spent his school holidays in Brazil.

Armed with a backpack, camera and a notepad, Simon Clifford stayed in grubby dorms, filmed children playing in the favelas (slums) and trained with a number of Brazil’s top players.

He saw many things he expected to find: the passion, the tradition, the highly organized training centres, the long practice sessions. He saw the poverty in the favelas and the desperation in the players’ eyes.

But he also saw something he didn’t expect, a strange game that resembled something like soccer, but played with a ball half the size and on a small concrete pitch the size of a basketball-court.

The smaller pitch and ball meant passes had to be quick and intricate, action was nonstop and end-to-end, and the tempo was fast paced and blinding. Aside from the kicking, the fast paced game probably resembled the game of basketball more than it did soccer.

The locals called the game Futebol De Salao (Portuguese for “soccer in the room”) or ‘Futsal’ for short.

As Clifford later wrote, “[Futsal] is played across Brazil. It is the way they learn their skill and the way they build their speed… [Finding] it was like finding the missing link.”

As Clifford later wrote, “[Futsal] is played across Brazil. It is the way they learn their skill and the way they build their speed… [Finding] it was like finding the missing link.”

Armed with this newfound knowledge, Clifford returned to England, quit his teaching job and out of a spare room in his house, developed a soccer program for primary and high school aged children that he called the Brazilian Soccer School.

Clifford’s training program was based around Futsal and first taught to players from the impoverished area of Leeds. He even played samba music on a boom box to create an air of Brazilian ambience during training.

When the citizens of Leeds heard of Clifford’s plan, they chuckled. When they saw the spectacle of pale Yorkshire kids kicking around a small heavy ball to the sounds of samba music, they almost laughed themselves to death.

There was of course one small detail – Clifford was right!

Four years later, Clifford’s team of under-fourteens defeated the Scottish national team of the same age; then went on to defeat the Irish national team as well. That was the proof Clifford needed to expand his Brazilian Soccer School into dozens of countries around the world.

Futebol De Salao (Futsal)

Futsal is like soccer, only in a more concentrated form:

  • The ball is smaller in size (size 5 compared to size 4) and approximately 30% heavier to reduce bounce and enable faster play.
  • The game is played on a smaller pitch, roughly the size of a basketball court, with less space for players to move and operate in.
  • The game is played between two teams of five players each, one of whom is the goalkeeper.
  • Teams can have up to nine substitutes on the bench, with unlimited substitutions allowed during the match. Substitutes can also be made even when the ball is in play.
  • Unlike soccer, there is no offside rule in Futsal. Attackers can get much closer to the goal than they can in the traditional outdoor version.

Futsal was invented in 1930 as a rainy day alternative by a Uruguayan coach. It later arrived in Brazil where it spread like a virus throughout their crowded cities.

While other South American countries played Futsal, Brazil became captivated by it because it could be played in the tight concrete confines of the favalas where green fields were rare. Even today, more people play Futsal in Brazil than soccer, although soccer attracts more spectators.

But the key takeaway is that almost all of Brazil’s great soccer players first learnt their trade playing Futsal.

Here is what Pele, named the greatest player of the 20th Century, said:

I played Futsal for two or three years before I joined Santos… Futsal was important in helping to develop my ball control, quick thinking, passing… also for dribbling, balance and concentration… Futsal was very, very important, no doubt.

Zico, a brilliant striker who scored fifty two goals in seventy-two international matches for Brazil, “I played on Futsal as a youngster. It’s the best start for kids.”

Ronaldo, the highest goal scorer in World Cup history and one of two men to have been named FIFA World Player of the Year, “Futsal is how I really got started. This is my love, the thing that I enjoyed the most.”

Ronaldinho, twice World Player of the Year, said,

Futsal is an extremely important way for kids to develop their skills and understanding of the game. My touch and my dribbling have come from playing Futsal… When you come to play normal soccer, it’s easy if you’ve come from Futsal.

Why do these iconic players lavish such praise on Futsal?

Because Futsal is not only fun, the faster surface, heaver ball and modified rules create an environment that encourages innovation and accelerates learning.

It helps players perfect their ball handling and operate in tight spaces – as these YouTube videos demonstrate.

1. Increased Ball Handling

One of the reasons behind Futsal’s success lies in the math. Research shows Futsal players handle the ball 600% more often than soccer players. And there’s no resting off the ball. With only 4 players on the field, action is continuous and players are always involved in play.

It’s the training equivalent of a Toyota factory. Less time wasted standing around, more quality time spent dribbling, passing, moving and shooting, adding up to a more efficient use of time for accelerated learning.

2. Greater Skill Difficulty

The smaller, heavier ball is less forgiving off the foot and therefore demands and rewards more precise handling. Picture grainy footage of a young Sir Donald Bradman hitting a cricket ball against a corrugated iron tank with a cricket stump.

Research shows that youth players participating in Futsal develop quicker reflexes, faster thinking abilities and pinpoint passing skills.

In essence, if you can learn to handle the ball effectively in Futsal, you’ll find handling a soccer ball a breeze!

3. Greater Innovation

Tight spaces mean players can’t just kick the ball away to the safety of loose backman when they are under pressure. They have to operate in tight space and take on opposition when challenged.

This means they are constantly placed in demanding decision-making situations, requiring quick thinking, good ball control, precise passing and creative solutions. Sharp passing is paramount. Ball control and vision are crucial. Close quarters footwork is vital.

As Dr Miranda [professor of football at the University of Sao Paulo] summed up, “No time plus no space equals better skills. Futsal is our national laboratory of improvisation.”

The elastico move popularised by Ronaldinho, where he teases a defender by drawing the ball in and out. The toe poke goal that Ronaldo scored during the Soccer 2012 World Cup. Moves like the d’espero, vasellina and el barret…

They were all born from the tight confines of Futsal.

4. Fun

Perhaps the biggest advantage of Futsal is that it encapsulates the essential skills of soccer, increases the difficulty level to accelerate learning and then makes learning a game so it becomes fun.

When you consider the commitment and hours of practice required to reach elite levels in any sport, fun can be the difference between a young player lasting the distance, or burning out and quitting.

Put another way, which would you rather as a young player? Spend hours doing monotonous drills over and over again, or practice those skills during a fun game with friends?

Accelerated Learning Means Getting Out Of Comfort Zones

Think about the way many of us learn how to drive. When we first start learning, we concentrate hard to master changing the gears, navigating through traffic and braking smoothly to stop. Learning is immense!

Then as these skills become more familiar, we no longer give much thought to them and our learning slows down, then eventually stops.

The same happens in sports.

When junior players first get into a sport, the learning curve is steep as they try to master new skills and game sense. Then once these skills become familiar, they are no longer challenged and learning slows to a crawl.

Research shows that the difference between top performers and amateur players is top performers continually increase the difficulty level of their training as they improve, whereas amateurs don’t!

For example, amateur golfers typically hit balls randomly at a golf range. Tiger Woods on the other hand hits them from the sand bunkers to maximize the difficulty.

Amateur tennis players hit rallies with opponents, whereas Rodger Federer spends hours whacking balls at impossibly placed tennis balls placed on the other side of the net.

And who could forget Don Bradman hitting a golf ball against a corrugated iron tank with a cricket stump while his English counterparts were practicing with regular bat and ball.

These top performers know what every Futsal player knows. When your training is at a level where it pushes the limits of your ability; you can accelerate your learning. Sort of like how lifting heavy weights increases your muscle size.

But you don’t have to look at other sports to prove this fact. You will find evidence of this phenomenon throughout our great game.

For years, Victorian and South Australian football tended to be more physical compared to the West. The reasoning? Their grounds tended to be smaller and muddier. Conversely, AFL footy in Western Australia tended to be faster running because the grounds were larger and drier.

Football commentators often remark how Collingwood midfielder Scott Pendlebury always seems to run into space. They say he has a knack for thinking “one step ahead” of his opponents. The real reason though might be because he was an avid basketballer as a junior, a game where players must learn how to operate in tight spaces.

AFL’s experiment with Karmichael Hunt and Israel Folau has been interesting to watch. Regardless, few could argue that both players raised the bar on tackling. Some of Folau’s bone crunching, perfectly executed tackles in particular have rarely been seen at an AFL level. Will Folau’s foray into Rugby Union see him gain an advantage from the aerial skills and kicking he picked up in the AFL?

Could The Lessons of Futsal Work In AFL Football?

While Futsal itself may not work for Australian rules football, the use of sports games to teach game sense and fundamental skills certainly could.

Handballing games are a great example.

Pace out an area say 20 meters by 20 meters, then create a game of 4 versus 4. Players must stay within the playing area and the first group must try to retain possession while the other group attempts to gain it. The increased level of difficulty in this case enhances learning. Watch as players learn how to shepherd, run to space and operate at close quarters.

But you don’t have to stop at handball games.

For example, kicking goals at training is one thing, kicking goals under pressure during a game is another. Renowned goal kicking coach, Simon Goosey, has found a way to replicate this pressure at training. At the end of a training session, he sets up a number of cones in the forward 50. Players then take turns at shooting for goal from each of the cones. The player who kicks the most goals enjoys a clubroom dinner later that night, bought by the losers.

Practicing ruck taps can become boring and monotonous. Ruckman have to run, jump, tap, then run back to the beginning and do it again. Over time, it’s easy for the ruckman to go through the motion and stop learning. One way AFL ruck coach Simon Eastaugh counters this monotony is by making a game out of it. He places plastic bins around the tap zone and challenges his ruckman to see who can tap the most balls into the bin.

Conclusion

Brazil’s dominance of world soccer proves how powerful training games can be in any sport.

In a nutshell, the tight spaces, heavy ball and increased difficulty of Futsal has:

  • Greatly enhanced players’ ball handling skills and off-the-ball movement.
  • Creates split second thinking to maintain possession and distribute the ball quickly.
  • Fosters tremendous close-quarters footwork to protect the ball and move around defenders.

To be clear, Futsal is not the only reason why Brazilian soccer is great. The other factors so often cited – climate, passion and poverty – really do matter. But Futsal is the lever through which those other factors multiply their force.

As Ronaldinho, twice World Player of the Year, said

When you come to play normal soccer, it’s easy if you’ve come from Futsal.

Hopefully AFL footy coaches at all levels can learn from this example and share the same wonderful learning experiences with their players. If training games has worked so well in Brazil, there is no reason why it won’t work for you!
Title photo by Crystian Cruz via: freeforcommercialuse.org.

Posted by David Johnson

David “Johnno” Johnson is our chief football researcher and writer. With over 20 years of coaching experience in all grades of football David was also a prominent footballer himself, having played at Teal Cup level and was even recruited by the Essendon Football Club. The pinnacle of David's coaching experience saw him as the assistant coach of the East Fremantle Shark Football Club in the WAFL for a number of years.

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