Growing up on Merseyside just a stone’s throw from where arguably England’s greatest ever player, Wayne Rooney, grew up, Jamie Fahey delves deeper into the sport of futsal – an indoor football game played with a small, heavy ball – that has unknowingly shaped today’s elite footballers.
Describing the enigmatic sport in a simplified version, Fahey challenges the scepticism of futsal within the UK.
“Imagine football but with all the best bits magnified and multiplied. More goals, shots, saves, passing combinations, counter-attacks and 1v1 encounters. Then take all modern football’s worst fripperies – excess time-wasting, offside drama, goalless bore-fests and joy-killing VAR and billionaire-led super league breakaways – and volley into row Z. What you've then got is futsal.
“Futsal is the thinking player’s game, requiring speed of thought and acute technical and tactical reflexes. In Portugal - at Benfica’s futsal academy - the coaches call it “O jogo rebelde” (the rebel game). Not quite football. New rules. Different goals (hockey size), a new ball (lower bounce), novel laws (no offside). With nods to handball, basketball and even water polo too.”
A sports journalist for The Guardian, Fahey has over 10 years coaching experience in the sport. Tracing the origins of futsal back to Uruguay while interviewing some influential people in both futsal and football, Fahey’s new book Futsal: The Story of an Indoor Revolution is set against a backdrop of his own personal experiences.
“English football’s quest for a new breed of player reappears as a theme, with the narrative set against my own experiences in the Liverpool streets, parks and halls of the 1970s, at Everton’s school of excellence as a teenager in the 1980s, a semi-pro footballer in the 1990s and a UEFA B coach and grassroots coach mentor for the FA in recent years.”
Issuing an entire chapter on fellow Liverpudlian Wayne Rooney, who David Moyes described as “the last of the true street footballers”, Fahey details the similarities between street football and futsal.
“Wayne Rooney didn’t play futsal, of course. He learned his sublime art on the football-crazy streets of Croxteth, Liverpool, the subject of a chapter in the book. This breathless street culture, which I also grew up in, offers a learning intensity akin to futsal. A similar case can be made for cage football and conventional five-a-side.”
Concerns have risen within futsal circles in recent years about a lack of children honing their skills on streets and in cages. A testimony from Alan Irvine, the West Ham assistant coach, drives home this point, Fahey tells FFT.
“He introduced the game into Everton’s academy after an inspirational trip to Barcelona. He told me a “strong futsal programme” can help inner cities in the UK recover from the “death of street football”.”
Fahey examines whether Irvine’s suggestion that the death of street football is an element that England can rediscover through futsal. To further emphasise this point when asked if there is a synergy between footballing success and a futsal education, Fahey highlights some futsal players-turned footballers.
“Perhaps less well known are the fascinating backstories of former Denmark star Brian Laudrup (goalscorer at the 1989 futsal world championships), predatory France and AS Monaco predator Wissam Ben Yedder (a futsal international before turning to football in his late teens) and Tom Rogic, the Celtic and Australia international No.10 who also represented the futsalroos.
“Max Kilman reflects on his unique journey “twin-tracking” as a futsal player (25 England caps) and non-league footballer to the Premier League with Wolverhampton Wanderers.
“The defender tells me how he agrees with Gareth Southgate – a confirmed advocate of the game – that futsal holds the key to future England success. He tells me about the hidden skills he learned in futsal that allowed him to cope in the white heat of Premier League matches.”
Futsal has unwittingly shaped the careers of some of football’s greatest names. The sport has provided an essential education in developing sharp decision making and playing under immense pressure. Although the players Fahey later mentions didn’t play futsal at a higher level, their formative years with the sport could provide a possible explanation for their eventual success.
“From Pelé and Roberto Rivellino to Zico and Sócrates, Ronaldo – O Fenômeno – Romário, Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Marcelo, Neymar, Coutinho, the Barcelona tiki-taka brigade, and Belgium and Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, they all cite futsal as the game that helped form them.
“Neymar maintains a huge sense of adulation for the best futsal player of all time, the great Falcão. In tribute to the small-sided genius with a world-record 402 goals for Brazil, Neymar marked Falcão’s retirement in 2018 by declaring him “a huge reference to all of us” and an inspiration with “the beautiful show he put in the courts” for many years.”
As players hone their craft with more touches of the ball in tighter areas, Fahey travels across the world to learn more about why futsal is an essential educational tool for footballing development. Three main interviews stand out for the writer in the thoroughly insightful book: with futsal’s most revered star Ricardinho, Iran’s former female football and futsal manager Shahrzad Mozafar, and Belgium’s manager Roberto Martinez, who also contributes a foreword.
“I interviewed the superstar known as O Mágico (the Magician) in Portugal, Ricardinho. We chatted, joked, talked futsal (and football), and even got a ball out in the Rio Maior hall, where we ended up recreating an embarrassing own goal I’d scored for my team back home in Reading. He loved it.
“Secondly, an interview with the inspirational coach of the first female Iran national football team after the 1979 Islamic revolution who then led the republic’s futsal team to glory in the Asian Football Confederation championships of 2018. She describes in vivid detail the scenes on the dusty streets of Iran not too dissimilar to the ones I lived out in north Liverpool at the time, some 3,000 miles away. Street football was everywhere. The difference being that strict laws on female participation in Iran meant she was forced to sit out and watch.
“Finally, Roberto Martínez reveals his love of futsal as a boy – and now as master tactician of the Belgian football team – and how the game with huge links to the generation of Spanish excellence led by fellow Catalan Pep Guardiola at Barcelona influenced his playing and coaching philosophy. Both men simply see the sport of their youth as 'noble', Martínez tells me. It’s an element that has developed us, he explains.”
To conclude: “The book puts the biggest skill transfers to the 11-a-side game under the microscope and sheds light on the intricacies of a highly tactical sport that many football fans may have heard of but precious few understand.”
Futsal: The Story of an Indoor Revolution is available from 1 July 2021.
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