Johan Cruyff, the Dutch forward widely regarded as one of the greatest soccer players in history, once said, "I trained about 3-4 hours a week at Ajax when I was little. But I played 3-4 hours every day on the street. So where do you think I learned to play football?"
The answer is quite obvious. Unstructured play is arguably one of the best activities children can participate in. Give them space and let them create their own reality, or soccer field, or whatever. Michael Beale, former Chelsea youth coach, once said, "Give kids a ball, (and) they'll figure the rest out." In an era of organized playdates and parental fear of children skinning their knees, how do we get kids to simply play?
Street soccer is simply picking up a ball, finding some space, and playing. There is no coaching and no parents, just kids creating a love affair with the soccer ball. There are no overzealous coaches screaming what to do at every turn and essentially joysticking their players for 60 minutes. Young players need to learn to play with freedom, flair and creativity, which is what Brazil, Spain, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany have successfully done. They've created players of such unquestionable skill and IQ that they have largely dominated at producing the best players in the world. All these federations revamped their programs to get better after hitting various low points internationally. Yet ironically, the U.S. men's national team doesn't even qualify for a World Cup in a region where they should be a shoo-in, and yet little has changed.
It seems that American children won't be spending 3-4 hours a day playing soccer in the streets anytime soon. But how can we start making up the gap? I believe the introduction of futsal could be exactly what American youth soccer needs.
Players like Messi, Xavi, Neymar and Pele were raised on futsal. Cristiano Ronaldo said he felt "free" whenever he played the game. While at Everton, Roberto Martinez mandated futsal into the curriculum. So, what exactly is it?
Futsal is an indoor version of soccer that sees five players per side (including goalies) and utilizes a smaller, heavier ball. The game is played on a hard, indoor surface which is roughly one-ninth the size of a regulation outdoor pitch. There are boundary lines like usual soccer. With the limited space and the less bouncy ball, technical and tactical play becomes crucial. With the spacing, this isn't about running, its about playing. Players have to play under pressure and manipulate the ball to be successful. This requires spatial awareness, creativity, checking shoulders and making lightning-quick decisions. These are seemingly the qualities of the best players of the current generation of stars, and many American players are lacking in these areas.
A study by the English FA determined that players get up to five times the amount of touches in futsal or small-sided games than they do in 11-a-side. But more importantly, almost all of these touches are under pressure. This makes them critical touches, and the player has to have some tactical application to what they are doing. These are not repeated touches with a parent-paid coach in a park, repeating moves over and over with no pressure. These touches and passes have consequence, but consequence in an environment that is encouraging positive decision-making and creative soccer. Watch the Brazilians play and you see the creativity, craft, and cleverness that frankly alludes the American player.
Is it tactically perfect soccer? Are the best decisions being made all the time? No, but that's not the point. That stuff can be addressed at a different time and place. This is the time for free play with no structure and little adult oversight. This is a place for players to express themselves and, as Cristiano said, be "free".
Watching American soccer, the art of the 1-v-1 battle seems totally lost. For decades, many of the sport's greatest players have been capable of unlocking games with individual brilliance. Sometimes, games demand this! If you watch enough Academy games, there are some very good players being produced in America, and there is some quality soccer being played, but it seems to be a bit robotic. A lot of us are looking for that player who inspires us and does something that makes us say, "Whoa, did you see that?" It's important to encourage this part of a player's game, especially at a young age. Not every player is going to have a knack for creativity, but when you raise them in an environment that suffocates creativity instead of fostering it, you end up with few players capable of individual brilliance.
Eric Wynalda quipped on Fox Sports one time that if Messi had been born in America, we would have totally screwed him up. Whether that's true or not is up for debate, but when you look at Futsal and what it can provide for young players—the creative atmosphere, the touches under pressure, the need for quick decision-making and sharp technical skills—perhaps this is the missing link for American players.
Our men and women's national teams have largely relied on athleticism for success. While the women have been far more successful on the national stage than our men to this point, their inability to play in tight areas has allowed the rest of the world to catch up. Our U-17 women's team just finished last in their group at the 2018 U-17 World Cup. The U-20's just lost to France 2-1. When you watch France, Japan, England and the like compete, they have a technical savvy that is undeniable.
Adding futsal to a regular youth soccer curriculum can only be beneficial. With teams often training three to four days a week, the idea that futsal can be the technical training day with more touches, more passes attempted, and more 1-v-1's can help make players better. This naturally won't happen overnight. It will take time, but time and patience is needed to develop players. In Sweden, they don't cut hockey players until they are 17 or 18 to allow for growth and development. And there is no other country who produces more professional hockey players per capita than Sweden.
Now, let's go back to recent international results. France finished 2nd in the 2016 Euros and won the 2018 World Cup. Belgium finished 3rd in the 2018 World Cup and in the quarterfinals in 2014. Germany won the World Cup in 2014. Spain won the 2008 and 2012 Euros and 2010 World Cup. These countries are doing something right. Small-sided games and futsal are very prevalent with all these programs, as they are in the youth systems of elite clubs like FC Barcelona. With futsal, there must be no coaching. This is a horrifically foreign concept to Americans, as there are no greater experts on soccer than every parent on the sideline. We also need to stop obsessing with formations and systems. The kids need to learn how to play before playing in a rigid structured system.
Let the kids play. Let them be creative. Let them succeed. Let them fail. Let them achieve the creative genius we so desperately need here. Give them a ball and some direction and you might be shocked at what will happen. While the kids of America won't likely be playing "street soccer" for hours a day like the children in the favelas of Brazil, we can began integrating futsal on a more consistent basis.
Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images
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