The surprising answer is that brazil produces great players because since the 1950s Brazilian players have trained in a particular way, with a particular tool that improves ball-handling skill fats than anywhere else in the world. Like a nation of Clarissa’s, they have found a way to increase their learning velocity – and like her, they are barely aware of it. I call this kind of training deep practice, and as we’ll see, it applies to more than soccer.
Like many sports fans around the world, soccer coach Simon Clifford was fascinated by the supernatural skills of Brazilian soccer players. Unlike most fans, however, he decided to go to Brazil to see if he could find out how they developed those skills. This was an unusually ambitious initiative on Clifford’s part, considering that he had gained all his coaching experience at a Catholic elementary school in the soccer no-hotbed of Leeds, England. Then again, Clifford is not what you’d call usual. He’s tall and dashingly handsome and radiates the sort of charismatic, bulletproof confidence one usually associates with missionaries and emperors. (In his early twenties Clifford was severely injured in a freak soccer accident – suffering internal organ damage, kidney removal – and perhaps as a result he approaches each day with immoderate zeal.) In the summer of 1997, when he was twenty-six, Clifford borrowed $8,000 from his teacher’s union and set out for Brazil toting a Backpack, a video camera, and a notebook full of phone numbers he’d cajoled from a Brazilian player he’d met.
Once there, Clifford spent most of his time exploring the thronging expanses of São Paulo, sleeping in roach-infested dormitories by night, scribbling notes by day. He saw many things he’d expected to find: the passion, the tradition, the highly organized training centers, the long practice sessions. (Teenage players at Brazilian soccer academies log twenty hours per week, compared with five hours per week for their British counterpart.) He saw the towering poverty of the favelas and the desperation in the players’ eyes.
But Clifford also saw something he didn’t expect: a strange game. It resembled soccer if soccer were played inside a phone booth and dosed with amphetamines. The ball was half the size but weighed twice as much; it hardly bounced at all. The players trained, not on a vast expanse of the grass field, but on basketball-court-size patches of concrete, wooden floor, and dirt. Each side, instead of having eleven players, had five or six. In its rhythm and blinding speed, the game resembled basketball or hockey more than soccer: it consisted of an intricate series of quick, controlled passes and nonstop end-to-end action. The game was called futebol de salão, Portuguese for “soccer in the room.” Its modern incarnation was called futsal.
“It was clear to me that this was where Brazilian skills were born,” Clifford said. “It was like finding the missing link.”
Futsal had been invented in 1930 as a rainy-day training option by an Uruguayan coach. Brazilians quickly seized upon it and codified the first rules in 1936. Since then the game had spread like a virus, especially in Brazil’s crowded cities, and it quickly came the occupy a unique place in Brazilian sporting culture. Other nations played futsal, but Brazil became uniquely obsessed with it, in part because the game could be played anywhere (no small advantage in a nation where grass fields are rare). Futsal grew to command the passions of Brazilian Kids in the same way that pickup basketball commands the passions of inner-city American Kids. Brazil dominates the sport’s organized version, winning 35 of 38 international competitions, according to Vicente Figueiredo, author of History of futebol de salão. But that number only suggests the time and energy that Brazil pours into this strange homemade game. As Alex Bellos, author of Fuetbol: Soccer, the Brazilian Way, wrote, futsal “is regarded as the incubator of the Brazilian soul.”
The incubation is reflected in players’ biographies. From Pelé onward virtually every Brazilian player played futsal as a kid, first in the neighborhood and later at Brazil’s soccer academies, wherefrom ages seven to around twelve they typically devoted three days a week to futsal. A top Brazilian player spends thousands of hours at the game. The great Juninho, for instance, said he never kicked a full-sized ball on grass until he was fourteen. Until he was twelve, Robinho spent half his training time playing futsal.*
The Environment of Futsal, lets players develop new moves to encounter their opponent. Like “that elastico move that Ronaldinho popularized, drawing the ball in and out like a yo-yo? It originated in Futsal. The toe-poke goal that Ronaldo scored in the 2002 World Cup? Again, Futsal.
Foreign Journalists fly to brazil, go to the beaches, take pictures and write stories that Brazilian players are made on Beaches, but the reality is Futsal, which creates them, great players.
Cause, Futsal players touch the ball far more often than soccer players – six times more often per minute, according to a Liverpool University study. The smaller heavier ball demands and rewards more precise handling – as coaches point out, you can’t get out of a tight spot simply by booting the ball downfield. Sharp passing is paramount: the game is all about looking for angles and spaces and working quick combinations with other players. Ball control and vision are crucial so that when futsal players play the full-size game, they feel as if they have acres of free space in which to operate.
In other words, Brazilian soccer is different from the rest of the World because Brazil employs the sporting equivalent of a Link trainer. Futsal compresses soccer’s essential skills into a small box; it places players inside the deep practice zone, making and correcting errors, constantly generating solutions to vivid problems. Players touching the ball 600 percent more often learn far faster, without realizing it, than they would in the vast, bouncy expanse of the outdoor game.
To be clear: futsal is not the only reason Brazilian soccer is great. The other factors so often cited — climate, passion, and poverty — really do matter. Bit futsal is the lever through which those factors transfer their force.
When Simon Clifford saw futsal, he got excited. He returned home, quit his teaching job, and founded the International Confederation of Futebol de Salão in a spare room of his house, developing a soccer program for elementary and high-school-age kids that he called the Brazilian Soccer School. He constructed an elaborate series of drills based on futsal moves. His, players who mostly hailed from a rough, impoverished area of Leeds, started imitating the Zicos and Ronaldinho’s. To create the proper ambiance, Clifford played samba music on a boom box.
Let’s step back a moment and take an objective look at what Clifford was doing. He was running an experiment to see whether Brazil’s million-footed talent factory could be grafted to an utterly foreign land via this small, silly game. He was betting that the act of playing futsal would cause some glowing kernel of Brazilian magic to take root in sooty, chilly Leeds.
When the citizens of Leeds heard of Clifford’s plan, they were mildly entertained. When they actually witnessed his school in action, they were in grave danger of laughing themselves to death at the spectacle: dozens of pale, pink-cheeked, thick-necked Yorkshire kids kicking around small, too-heavy balls, learning fancy tricks to the tune of samba music. It was a laugh, except for one detail — Clifford was right.
Four years later Clifford’s team of under-fourteen defeated the Scottish national team as well. One of his Leeds kids, a defender named Micah Richards, now plays for the English national team. Clifford’s Brazilian Soccer School has expanded to a dozen countries around the world. More stars, Clifford says, are on the way.