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This past week in São Paulo, I had the privilege of visiting the storied futsal programs of São Paulo FC, Santos FC, and SE Palmeiras. At each club, futsal is trained at the younger ages instead of soccer. It’s widely accepted among the top clubs in Brazil that futsal promotes development better than soccer. Based on their decades of success, who’s to argue?

Amazing technique

Brazilians are really good at dribbling. Duh, right? Here in the US we’ve seen Romario, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Neymar and others work their magic over the years; all distilled in YouTube glory for future generations. And one can look to Barça Lassa’s current team to find the dribbling genius of Ferrão, Dyego, and Léo Santana. There’s no shortage of creative, skilled players from the land of samba, sun, and sand. And yet, I was stilled stunned to see it all first hand. In the last ten years, I’ve witnessed just a handful of American players manipulate the ball as if it were a yo-yo. This past week, I saw dozens. I asked Fernanda Grande, u8-u11 director at Palmeiras, how this was accomplished. “We don’t train our players to fit a system of play. Instead we focus on creating a strong technical foundation that will allow them to play in any system when they are older.” She then pinpointed the benefits of a particular dribbling exercise. “Here, (half court 3v3 with keepers), the players are only allowed to pass once. After that they can only dribble and shoot. This allows them the courage to take players on.” Later, she again emphasized how vital it is to provide exercises where players have the courage or confidence to go 1v1. At each of the academies, players were extraordinarily adept at using their soles to stop, start, and change direction. This is a hallmark of players raised with futsal. Neymar’s dribbling style is a classic example.

Ferocious defending

A visitor might briefly mistake one of these trainings for a MMA dojo. The bumping, pushing, pulling, shirt grabbing, and tackling that occurs on almost every challenge is again stunning. Have I used that word before? And yet, with all the contact, there’s very little complaining from players or coaches. It’s simply an accepted part of the game. Going to ground with various versions of stabs, blocks, and tackles was a constant. Players on the verge of being beaten on the dribble would often make a last ditch stab to get a touch on the ball. It was remarkably effective. In addition to the physicalness of the defending, there was a mental toughness that was inherent. There was an almost palpable sense of you will not beat me. Challenges were often more about dispossessing instead of containment.

Coaching fervor

After 20 years as a public school teacher, I have a good sense of where a classroom is at when I walk into it. Instant snapshots on behavior, routines, and student engagement come into focus. You can tell when a classroom is with it. The same goes for sports. Coach is just another word for teacher. The three coaches I observed were fantastic educators. Each engaged their players with a relentless stream of praise and constructive criticism. This constant feedback loop lasted the entire training. To go 90 or 180 minutes with full blast enthusiasm and commitment is not easy. It requires a high level of professionalism and love of the game. Love of the game is a well worn cliche. And yet, it was completely appropriate for Conrado Pereira of São Paulo, Indio Fonseca of Santos, and Fernanda. This was not their job: this was their passion. This zest for the game then infused their players. It was a reminder that students and players are often only as good as the instruction they receive.