In recent years, United Futsal’s World Futsal Cup, held each December in the beach resort of Blanes, Spain, north of Barcelona, has been just out of reach.  At least until this year. Our u14 (2006) group decided to go for it. The prospect of playing FC Barcelona was simply too much to resist.

On a personal note, it’s been a dream for quite awhile to test these 06’s against the world’s best. Every thing I’ve learned on coaching education trips to Spain and Brazil in recent years has been spoon fed to this 06 group. Domestically, this team has received praise for its style and content. That being said, it’s mostly been versus opponents that play in a 2-2 formation without much movement. Good, solid teams, but not ideal preparation for the international game.

So could a US based team that usually trains just 1x per week match up with the world’s best?  Could the boys learn on the fly how to defend the nuances of the 3-1 and 4-0 formations against clubs with resources and experience that dwarfed our own? On the surface these questions seemed absurd, even comical. And yet, the boys dared to ask.

A quaint beach town

All teams were housed in the beach town of Lloret de Mar. Perched on the Mediterranean, this summer party zone slows to a crawl in the winter down season. But just off the main beach there are still numerous quality restaurants and shops that remain open. There’s lots of character and rustic charm to this downtown area. And when you’re finished with your tapas and beer, watching the waves break and the sun fade is pure zen.

A ten minute bus ride south of Lloret is Blanes with its world class sports facility that includes grandstand seating and full sized courts. With games being played simultaneously on six courts, the place simply buzzes. Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Greek, and English are all heard within minutes of walking in the door. The cool, international vibe box gets checked off immediately.

United Futsal staff and organization

Montse Llamazares, Leo Meireles, and staff are charged with moving an army of players and supporters from the hotel to the courts and back over five days, feeding thousands buffet style at all hours of the day, and making sure games start and finish on time. It’s a massive undertaking that they somehow pulled off seamlessly. I can only imagine the chaos in the early years, but this 8th edition didn’t provide even the smallest of hiccups. Kudos also to CEO Ron Tryon for his friendly, engaging ways, and Marcelle Farias for MCing the opening and closing ceremonies with flair and efficiency.

Quality of the clubs

The field is loaded with top clubs especially from Brazil. The big boys of Santos and Corinthians show up each year, and SE Palmeiras coaches and players guest with Sports & CIA. The roster of international coaches is a who’s who of the game’s greatest minds. Xavi Closas of Barça B, Toni Farreras of ProFive Academy, Barata of Santos FC, and Fernanda Grande of Palmeiras/Sports & CIA, were just a few of the big names on site. I’ve met all of them in recent years, and they remain approachable, friendly, and willing to share advice. Each a wonderful ambassador for the game.

With so many top coaches and clubs in the mix, the pressure to win and play at a high level is intense. Reputations are at stake. Pride is a factor. And underlying everything is the ongoing question of who plays better, Brazil or Spain? It never gets voiced in polite company, but it’s there.

Referees

All referees were from the Catalan Federation of Futsal. This is arguably the most experienced and accredited group in the world. If they came across as aloof and even a bit condescending, I would get it. And yet, it was the complete opposite. They were professional, non confrontational, and extremely polite. When I questioned a few calls, they smiled and apologized for not seeing the play that way. They obviously have been trained to defuse tense situations. Their restraint, composure, and humility won’t soon be forgotten. Beyond impressive.

In the US we have a saying: no harm, no foul. It applies mostly to pick up, but the idea is that physicality is built into sports, so deal with it. In international futsal, a more appropriate phrase might be no attempted murder, no foul. I say this only slightly tongue in cheek. As noted in previous posts, outside the US the game is a contact sport. Whether in a pro game between Barça vs Inter Movistar or an internal scrimmage of u9 Palmeiras players, the constant bumping, pulling, pushing, and grabbing is nonstop and accepted. It’s simply apart of the sport’s DNA.

In the US, games are often called very tight. It took at least a half before our team realized they wouldn’t be whistled for hard challenges. They enjoyed this quite a bit.

The games

The opener

Our opening game was played with Bardral BOA of Japan. The Japanese played with great tactical awareness. Their movements off-the-ball within the 4-0 often confused us in the first half. They were prepared on set pieces and their defensive tenacity was constant. It was obvious their coaches had done a lot of heavy lifting. Even with a language barrier, it was clear the two teams and coaches had a great deal of respect for each other with high fives and smiles during hallway passes. This is one of my favorite memories.

Playing FC Barcelona

Playing Barça on their turf was the reason for this trip. In life it’s rare to test yourself against the gold standard in your field. To most it would seem a fool’s errand to play against a club with the resources, coaching, and players of FCB and expect to be competitive. These boys train 3x per week and play in arguably the world’s top league. They aspire to be professional futsalers. In addition to being exceptionally technical and tactically savvy, they are battle hardened. And yet, we thought we had a chance. Perhaps a fool’s chance, but still a chance. 

The first half was a dream within a dream. We had studied video of their options out of the 4-0 and this allowed for a certain level of familiarity. Turnovers were created leading to numerous quality chances on goal. Their keeper made a few acrobatic saves, two posts were hit, and a tap-in at the back post was missed. Half time score: 1-2. Our boys played with confidence and composure. Technically and tactically we held serve.

Several minutes into the second both teams continued to push the pace. Still down 1-2, there was no room for error. Fortune seemed to be with us when a 3v1 counter arose. Our fixo drove down the middle with options left and right. He juked the defender and only the keeper was left. A scoreline of 2-2 and a momentum swing all seemed within reach. Our fixo fired low and left, beating the outstretched goalie. Unfortunately the post had other ideas and the ball bounced straight back to the keeper who then hurled it up court where a reverse 1v3 presented itself. The resulting goal was the sharpest of daggers. A scoreline of 1-3 normally wouldn’t seem unsurmountable, but considering the manner of the goal and the level of the opponent, it was a major blow. Barça, like all top teams, doesn’t forgive. Make a mistake and they punish you, harshly.

A few minutes later our futsal fairy godmother called midnight with our top player going out with a calf injury. Pressing relentlessly in the first half had caught up with us. Unable to pressure the ball with the same urgency and a step slow when tracking runners, we were now vulnerable. With ten minutes left, Barça then put on a show with long diagonal passes, a lethal counter attack, and exceptional pivo hold-up play. 8-1 final. Great memories and lots of satisfaction in hanging with the world’s best team for much of the game.

Semi finals

By the semis the injury and illness bug went viral. A calf tear, a hamstring pull, a back strain, the stomach flu, and a goalie with a head cold and sleepless night, all added up to playing with just one sub against ProFive Academy, a regional all-star team from Barcelona led by Toni Farreras, one of Spain’s top coaches. I half expected Blanes to rename a wing of the local hospital after us. And yet, we were in the semis of the world’s top tournament. At this point, we were playing with the house’s money.

The house apparently wanted the money back, and quickly. After 90 seconds, we were down 0-2. And doubts came flooding in. Maybe the Barça game was a one-off? Maybe we weren’t ready for primetime? A time out was called and tactics were changed. We decided to park the nearest bus and counter. Luckily the bus turned out to be a British Double Decker because ProFive struggled to break us down. Numerous counters resulted, our keeper was pulled into the attack, and with just minutes left, the score was 2-3. A mad scramble in front of goal almost tied the game with the ball nearly crossing the line. But it wasn’t to be. Hats off to Toni and his classy ProFive Academy.

3rd place game

Injuries again slammed us with a groin strain knocking out another player. The game against Brazilian powerhouse, Intelli, a two time national champion, would be played without a sub. Out of necessity, we again parked the bus and looked to counter. The tactic largely worked until late in the first half when Intelli found a way to feed the ball repeatedly to their massive pivo who would then lay it off to runners who would shoot point blank on goal. The half finished with Intelli up a goal.

In the second half, Hollywood again decided to confiscate the script. With 17 minutes left in the game, one of our players channeled his inner Ralph Macchio and kicked an Intelli player. It was not a great moment. I apologized to the Intelli coach. He graciously accepted, and we moved on. The straight red left us with three court players for the remainder of the game. With exhausted players and concerns over more injuries, I considered forfeiting. Our players were having none of it. They wanted to finish the game.

At this point things got wild. Really wild. Anyone remotely familiar with the sport knows that scoring while being down a player constitutes a minor miracle. It almost never happens let alone against a club of international standing. We slipped into a triangle zone and looked to counter. And counter we did, to the tune of three goals. The game finished 8-6 for Intelli, but these 06’s Bulldogs officially enshrined themselves as legends in the hearts and minds of their grateful parents and coach. Bravo. #corazónyganas