When Jadon Sancho pulled on an England shirt to make his Three Lions debut, it was notable for more than one reason.
While the Borussia Dortmund speedster was the first player born since 2000 to represent England at senior level, his substitute appearance in Croatia also anointed him as the nation’s maiden international to have regularly used futsal as part of his development.
Although the small-sided indoor game, which focuses on technical ability, quick thinking and improvised skills, can’t lay claim to all the winger’s fleet-footed talents, it’s evident that the sport has had an effect. Just one look at his other-worldly hips shimmying from one side to the next shows how Sancho could bamboozle a defender on a small court as easily as on a grass pitch.
“What he brings to the table are ball skills,” said Arsenal under-16s head coach, Dan Micciche in an interview with the Guardian in September.
“Being able to play out of tight areas in a way where he can beat a player rather than having to pass in and he can do that a variety of ways. He can run with ball at speed and go both sides.
“Even though he’s right-footed, when he’s dribbling at people on that left side, he can actually go inside or outside and that makes him very difficult to defend against.
“At the very youngest age groups – nine, 10, 11 – it tends to be one-v-one attacking skills, four-v-four, five-v-five futsal. Then at 12, 13, 14, we stick them on bigger pitches, 11-v-11, and it becomes about team shape and winning.”
It’s an approach that might only just be bearing fruit in Britain, but Sancho’s background is nothing unusual further afield, particularly with some of the world’s top football nations.
Having played a key role in the development of several world superstars, including Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Xavi, futsal is seen by many continental coaches as a crucial part of young players’ growth.
The sport is credited with helping some of the great Brazilian and Spanish teams come up with the breathtaking ingenuity that can unpick obstinate defences, with Ronaldinho’s toe-poke goal against Chelsea in the 2005 Champions League a perfect example of skills honed on the futsal court.
In fact, England’s 2016 conquerors also used futsal techniques to create history, although Iceland’s talents weren’t sugar-coated with the same Samba brilliance as Ronaldinho’s. Instead, the Nordic islanders called upon the pressing talents they developed in their national futsal programme.
While futsal isn’t crucial for nations to achieve global football success – see Germany’s 2014 World Cup winners – there’s a well-respected school of thought that modern-day achievement on the international stage is strongly linked to it. Just look at the top of FIFA’s world rankings for the two sports and all of the top five futsal nations got to the latter stages of this summer’s football World Cup in Russia.
And it’s something that has been cottoned on to at the FA’s headquarters at St George’s Park too. With England’s national futsal side ranking 47th in the world, lagging behind the likes of Vietnam, Soloman Islands and Kuwait, the governing body has decided to act.
In January 2017, Michael Skubala was appointed as England’s new futsal head coach and elite performance manager – the first full-time futsal employee in FA history – and he’s been working to raise the game’s profile ever since. In September he was part of a team to launch the FA’s six-year strategy, which aims to increase participation to 150,000, help the men’s team get into the world’s top 20 and launch a women’s national side by 2024.
That’s no mean feat, with relatively few sports facilities offering futsal as an option and awareness of the game among football fans still low, although BBC Red Button coverage of recent internationals may start to change that. Encouraging more junior sides and professional youth setups to add futsal to their training regimes will also help, although it’s still only played by a handful of the Premier League’s elite despite foreign influences.
While Sancho’s rise to the top shows how playing futsal as a youngster can carefully hone raw talent to benefit the elite side, there are examples of the sport helping others further down the scale too. In August, Maidenhead left back Max Kilman switched the National League for the Premier League when he signed for Wolves, and paid homage to the role playing international futsal had on his big move.
“Futsal helps with football quite a lot,” Kilman told The Set Pieces shortly after his transfer. “Everybody thinks it’s all about making you better controlling the ball, but it’s about being more aware, more comfortable on the ball and making better decisions.”
“It helps because it’s really fast and the area is much smaller. So, when I came back to football, I was more confident to get the ball from throw-ins, in more tight areas and I felt like I had way more space when I get on a bigger pitch again.”
An impact is already starting to be made at grassroots level. While the focus on professional clubs might still be limited, futsal hubs are starting to appear in schools, colleges and youth football facilities across the nation.
The fully furbished courts, which are funded by £300,000 of Football Foundation grants, are part of the FA’s plan to give thousands of youngsters the chance to try the sport for the first time.
If that project starts to gain some momentum, then the FA’s targets could soon be hit – both on the court and on the pitch. And with it, there could be plenty more Sanchos to get the nation’s fans off their feet.
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