I'm in Madrid for a few weeks, reconnecting with one of the world's great soccer cultures. Its just in the air here. When a match is being played, every TV it seems is tuned to the Euro 2016 tournament. It doesn't matter that Spain is already out of it. In Madrid, all the talk is about Real Madrid players playing for their home countries, like Ronaldo (Portugal), Modric (Croatia), Bale (Wales), Kroos (Germany), and Pepe (Portugal).
School is out and Madrid is very hot this time of year, but kids and young adults are still outside playing soccer in the streets and parks. Magazine kiosks can be found on nearly every street corner and the headlines are dominated by the national obsession with soccer, soccer teams and soccer players.
Is Morata staying at Madrid? Chelsea is trying to buy him!
Why did Neymar sign for another 5 years at Barcelona?
Messi sentenced to 21 months in jail for tax fraud.
Denis Suarez returns to Barcelona claiming he wants to mirror Iniesta
Cristiano Ronaldo's ties Platini for top goal scorer in the UEFA Euro tournament.
Diego Simeone is ready to continue his amazing work with Atletico Madrid.
Earlier this week, one headline in Marca caught my eye:
Marcelo: "Tengo un sueño por cumplir, volver a jugar otra vez al fútbol sala"
"Marcelo: I have a dream to fulfill, which is to return once again to futsal."
Now, this is interesting! Marcelo features prominently as a defender for Real Madrid and is a regular selection for Brazil's national team. Only a few months ago he renewed his contract with Real Madrid through 2020. He'll only be 33 by then, so I was curious to learn why he was already speaking openly about his post-professional plans.
The actual story in Marca was not much longer than the headline, only two paragraphs long. Reading on, the full quote from Marcelo was slightly different than the headline and even more interesting.
"I have a dream to fulfill in the short-term, and that is to return to play futsal again with Caio. I think it would be a good choice for me when I leave football and before I retire "
The article went on to reveal that the quote was from an interview Marcelo gave to a new Spanish online futsal magazine called Futsal 360. So, I went hunting, found the right issue (#2) of the magazine and downloaded it. It's in Spanish, of course, but if you're interested in futsal and can read Spanish, you'll find it extremely compelling. The cover photos has the tagline, "Soccer and Futsal. Blood Brothers."
Marcelo and Caio Alves are childhood friends who played futsal together in Brazil. They met as youngsters in the famous Fluminense youth academy where training begins with futsal. As they tell the story of how they met, they were both in the academy locker room, spoke to each other a bit and then Caio excused himself to go the bathroom. When Caio returned, he discovered that Marcelo had taken his brand new socks and in their place left his old ones that had several holes. "I knew it was him!", said Caio. They immediately became fast friends and so began a deep friendship. They became family when Caio married Marcelo's sister, a fact I was unaware of until I read the Futsal 360 interview!
Futsal, derived from the full name "Futebol de Salão", is a fixture in Brazil. Though it does not enjoy the popularity or revenue of soccer, futsal is deeply connected to and intertwined with Brazilian soccer culture and the development of Brazilian players. Brazilian youth begin playing futsal as their primary sport and this is commonly understood as natural and necessary to proper player development.
Since futsal is played 5v5 on a small hard surface field, typically 40'x20', players necessarily enjoy substantial time on the ball. When played at an early age, futsal accelerates development technical skill, sharp dribbling teechnique and, above all, quick decision-making. Its simply the ideal tool for developing young players. Pele, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo Nazario, Kaka, Robinho, Neymar and David Luiz, are examples of soccer superstars who began developing their incredible talent by playing futsal as kids.
While Marcelo transitioned from futsal to soccer, Caio stuck with futsal and turned pro, playing mainly in Spain's professional futsal leagues. He began his Spanish futsal career in 2006 with PSG Mostoles, known as a very technical club. There have been a few transfers along the way, most recently just this month when he was released by D-Link Zaragoza and immediately signed by FS Valedpenas.
Globally, Brazil and Spain are considered the top futsal nations. In Spain, however, professional futsal is popular, but clearly second fiddle to soccer and La Liga. It likely always will be. There are only a handful of professional futsal clubs, the pay is not great and most players have other jobs just to make ends meet. Some, like Caio, are fortunate enough to have contracts paying them enough so they don't need second jobs and can concentrate full-time on training and playing.
The top futsal Spanish clubs are those that are connected to Spanish professional soccer clubs. For example, FC Barcelona Lassa is connected to FC Barcelona. Oddly enough, Marcelo's club, Real Madrid, has no futsal team. Well, they used to have a futsal team, but no more. The team disappeared in the early 1980's. As recently as 2012, there was hope Real Madrid would again feature a professional futsal team, probably by acquiring an existing club, but the project was not deemed economically viable. Privately, some believe the real reason is that Real Madrid is not anxious to have its own futsal team enter a league and sport so thoroughly dominated by FC Barcelona. There is probably a lot of truth in that belief.
Real Madrid's absence in the futsal world (as well as FC Barcelona's deep commitment to futsal) is well known in Madrid and appears to be a source of growing frustration for futsal fans and fans of Real Madrid alike. FC Barcelona, on the other hand, knows how to integrate futsal into its youth academy, with fantastic results for the technical development of their youth. Real Madrid has so far failed to keep up with its rival on this score.
Earlier this year, an article appeared in the Spanish sports website Capital Deporte making the case that that the two most powerful sporting brands in Spanish Soccer, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, have the power by themselves to elevate professional futsal's global profile. Imagine a futsal "clasico"! Barcelona versus Real Madrid. Imagine millions of kids around the world glued to television screens watching ball control and mastery of the highest order in an exciting, fast-paced, end-to-end game. According to the article's author, Pablo Dominguez:
"All that is needed is for Real Madrid to emulate FC Barcelona's business model. If Barça is doing anything well, it is that they know how to combine soccer and futsal in their academy so the players at La Masia acquire the technical skills and explosiveness of futsal...as we see manifested in Neymar and Messi. Properly understood, the two sports are complementary in the formation and development of promising youth players and, at the same time, can be a lucrative business at the elite professional levels."
This all makes perfect sense to me. That's exactly what needs to happen in the U.S.! Major League Soccer (MLS) soccer clubs should also have an affiliated professional futsal franchise playing in a professional futsal league. Futsal should be an integral part of the club's academy training, primarily for the younger ages. With professional soccer clubs leading the way, futsal would only become more popular with kids and they'll be more interested in playing (and becoming more skilled on the ball). Youth soccer clubs would have kids at the youngest ages spending equal time playing futsal and outdoor soccer until they are 11 or 12 years old. Perhaps we would see futsal courts being constructed in our neighborhoods and parks. It could spark a revolution in technical skill development for American kids and really improve the quality of American professional players. That's the Futsal Vision.
Yesterday, I was walking around the neighborhood just north of the Santiago Bernabeu and came across a group of kids playing futsal on a city court. The court was tucked into a small open space surrounded on three sides by tall apartment buildings. I could see adults and kids on the balconies above watching the game below. The kids playing on the court were having a blast! I could see more kids running out of the apartment buildings heading toward the court. Kids were organizing themselves into teams of 5 and rotating after three goals. Winner stays, loser leaves and the new team comes on. Fast and furious. It was fun to see how the game itself naturally forces kids to experiment with the ball and learn new ways of controlling it. The kids yelled tips to each other about improving the timing of their passes and their off ball runs. This kind of street futsal or street soccer simply doesn't exist in the U.S.
By coincidence, directly across the street is the headquarters of the Futsal Federation of Madrid. The Federation is comprised of 10 neighborhoods and is responsible for organizing league competitions between neighborhood youth futsal clubs. And three blocks further is the Santiago Bernabeu, home stadium for Real Madrid. Think about that. From the neighborhood futsal court, to the youth futsal leagues to the one of the world's top professional soccer clubs. It was all there right in front of me. Connect the dots!
So, back to Marcelo's dream. When he retires from professional soccer, Marcelo wants to play futsal with his best friend (and brother-in-law). His professional club, Real Madrid, does not have a futsal team (at least not yet), so he'll probably go elsewhere to play. And why play futsal? Probably because its fun. Marcelo has fond memories of playing futsal with his best friend. Kids and a ball. Sometimes, that's what it all comes down to.
This is exactly what we need in the U.S. We need futsal. We need a sport complementary to soccer that is fun and at the same time helps develops technically skilled players. In the end, the real secret to long-term player development is about creating better, more effective training environments for our kids, improving their technical skills and keeping them in the game longer. Futsal can help us get there.