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Xavi Closas of Barça B – Exclusive Interview

As the head coach of Barça B, Xavi Closas arguably holds the world’s top youth coaching position. He is charged with developing professionals for Barça, the pro team. International coaches and players routinely travel to Barcelona to participate in his iOX Futsal program. Many of our own players have learned from Xavi over the years, and his ability to inspire and educate is second to none.

Welcome back, Mister. Let’s get started.

What is your earliest memory of futsal and when did you decide it would become your vocation?

Well, I started playing at school. Here in Barcelona ​​and in most of the schools here in Spain, the playground is where futsal is played. And the majority of the schools have a team. Also in a nearby town where my parents have a house, I played on two or three teams. In the end, one of the teams took an interest in me and I started playing at the federal level, the most advanced. There I saw that it was my favorite sport. When I was little, I already realized that I loved it especially since you get so many touches on the ball. There was a time when I also played soccer. But it came down to that in soccer the ball is often airborne and you get very few touches, and futsal was the opposite. So I saw clearly that it was my sport; that it was what I wanted. I played other sports, but this is what I liked best. And I enjoyed it more and more until I got injured. Then I became a coach.

In recent years has youth futsal tactically evolved? And if so, how?

I think futsal has change quite a bit, mainly because the rules have changed, no? At least this is the case here in Spain. Before, the keeper wasn’t allowed to throw the ball into the opponent’s half. You had to toss it in your own. Also there’s the corner and sideline strategies. So the fact that the keeper’s role was enhanced with a greater freedom to distribute the ball led to more precision and more goals. Play became more spectacular.

The fact that the keeper previously was not permitted to throw the ball into the opponent’s half created the following situation. First off, the keeper had to provide a quality outlet pass. Two, the defenses pressured just a bit higher so the quality of the player on the ball needed to be better because you needed to build out of the back in a controlled way. Now, when you allow the keeper to throw the ball into the opponent’s half, this implies that you have a strong pivot, so you can focus on throwing long balls. So now you’ve stopped working on the individual skills of the player that builds from the back to instead ensure a safer outcome for the team. So now you’re more dependent on defending and less on attacking.

Who influenced you the most as a coach?

I started coaching after I tore my cruciate ligaments when playing with the team. So the club on my return, I had played a year, proposed the idea of being a coach. And the fact I had torn my ligaments, I had to resign myself to a place on the bench. More than having just one coaching influence, I really flourished when coming across the ideas of many coaches that had different ways of looking at the game. I’ve adopted their ideas, selecting individual aspects from each and then created my own identity as a coach.

But I haven’t had one main coaching influence. There’s been a few. Each dedicated to different ways of playing and able to explain the nuances of the game. So why not attempt to learn from many, no? From Javier Lozano to Miki Candelas and Marc Carmona. There’s been a lot of coaches that I’ve learned from. And they’ve all helped me develop and find my own coaching identity.

You and Oscar Alonso founded iOX Futsal. Can you talk a little about what your program offers coaches and teams?

iOX was born when I was working with Oscar. He was my top assistant and physical trainer for A.E. Bellsport. Well, there was an economic problem (at Bellsport) and there was a period of two years that I did not train any team. So at that time, we founded iOX Futsal and dedicated ourselves to various aspects of teaching futsal. One area is online work where we offer coaching advice. We help coaches with their model, their game ideas. We help them build the sessions and the planning of matches. It is like having a second coach.

There’s also online physical prep work, that is, the concept of having a physical trainer at the online level that adapts to the characteristics of your team and prepares the sessions for you. And then we also do online conferences. We decided to do a lot of things online because futsal is not football from an economic stand point. Many coaches work alone or do not have much of a staff, so it is good for them to have a person to consult, to debate, to ask, and to be more convinced.

Another facet of iOX is international. We will travel to any place in the world and hold sessions, from summer camps to personal training for clubs. Coaching education and group conferences as well. In that sense a complete package.

Coaches can also come here to Barcelona, and we teach them the iOX methodology, the way of working that we have at iOX. We teach them if they are coaches. We take them to see different clubs to see how they train. We do some training sessions on formations and take them to watch futsal games. If they bring a team, we schedule friendly matches so that they can see the level of play here in Barcelona. Training sessions are also available depending on what you want. So that’s a little of what we do at iOX.

Mister, always a pleasure hearing your thoughts. Stay safe and continued success to you, Oscar, and staff.

The Futsal Myth

 

In recent years, I’ve read numerous posts and articles that equate futsal with pick-up. It’s assumed the only thing the US needs to do is build thousands of courts nation wide and suddenly we’ll be cranking out a generation of Neymar’s and Messi’s. A massive build out would help without a doubt. And pick-up is highly recommended and an essential part of the personal history of many of the world’s most famous players from Cruyff to Ronaldinho. That being said, organized futsal is not pick-up. You cannot open the gym door, toss out a ball, and say you have a futsal program. This is pick-up. And pick-up is fun. And pick-up improves technique. And pick-up helps with creativity. But pick-up and futsal are not the same thing. This is a myth prevalent in places without a history of futsal.

Futsal, the way it’s utilized in most of Brazil’s top football academies including SC Corinthians, SE Palmeiras, São Paulo FC, and Santos FC, is anything but pick-up. It’s highly structured with professional coaches and top flight leagues and tournaments. Futsal is the foundation of their soccer programs. One of the main goals of these programs, if not the main one, is to create professional football players. The most recent example of a football star that started in a futsal program is Rodrygo Goes of Real Madrid. This €54 million transfer incubated within Santos FC’s futsal program. I assure you the curriculum did not involve rolling out a ball and having Rodrygo and buddies informally kick it around for 90 minutes. Having witnessed a u14 Santos FC futsal practice firsthand at the Urbano Caldeira, I found it highly organized, extremely intense, and brilliantly coached. Coach Índio barked out praise and criticism nonstop for the entire training. The only pick-up that took place was when a towel hit the floor.

So what might an equivalent program in the US look like? At some point, a MLS academy will follow the Brazilian model. And this domino will send the rest tumbling. At u8, u9, and u10, players will exclusively train at futsal. At u12 and u14 they will practice 40%-50% of the time at futsal and the rest in football. After that football will take over for the top players. At Santos FC the players at u12 and u14 train with futsal coaches on futsal days and football coaches on football ones. Similarly, here in the US, futsal training will need to be led by those knowledgeable in it.

If we build it, they will come. If we teach it, they will learn.

 

 

The Mikan Drill and Pivo Play

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Many of the top basketball players in the world including Kyrie Irving refined their finishing touch through the Mikan Drill. The drill allows for a high number of repetitions within a limited amount of time. Basically a lot of technical bang for your buck. It’s considered a big man or center drill, but obviously it works well for guards and forwards, too. The center spot in futsal is roughly the equivalent of the pivo. Like a center, the pivo often plays with his/her back to goal. Out of necessity, a pivo must learn footwork that involves spins and feints while facing away from goal. Scoring is the most prized skill in futsal or any invasion based game, so the incentive is there.

In these shelter-in-place times of Covid-19, a thousand and one Instagram posts have surfaced emphasizing technical skills in isolation; juggling, dribbling, and passing against a wall routines abound. All wonderful for foot-eye coordination, but not especially game specific. One of my all time favorite lines comes from FC Barcelona’s Xavi Closas: I don’t dribble on cones because I beat the cone every time. That’s not to say there’s not a time and place for drills that isolate technique with little or no decision making. That being said, it’s important you pick these drills wisely to maximize your player’s time and efforts. So back to Mr. George Mikan.

When I train my own kids at home, our focus mostly revolves around various 1v1 exercises that combine technique and decision making. But when we do practice technique in isolation, it almost always involves finishing à la the Mikan Drill. There isn’t the same number of rapid repetitions as in basketball since futsal balls need to be recovered, but with a bag full of balls, a similar dynamic can be recreated. One of the goals of the Mikan is the development of the weak hand. Equal use of both hands is built into the drill. Few players are genuinely dangerous with their weaker foot. In my own club with over 300 competitive players, a top coach estimated only two were equally adept with both feet. And our club is considered a progressive one. The majority of the San Jose Earthquakes Homegrown signings are players that have spent time at Ballistic United. This speaks to the challenges of getting players to develop their weaker foot outside of training. So a futsal version of the Mikan is ideal for resolving this challenge.

At the recent World Futsal Cup just outside of Barcelona, every international team seemingly had a pivo well versed in the ways of hold-up play. Players were comfortable receiving, passing, and turning and firing all while starting with their back to goal. In the US at this point, you don’t often see this, yet. In part it’s due to the fact that many if not most clubs still use a 2-2 formation. This doesn’t allow for a central target player supported by runners that you find within the 3-1. Over time most teams will abandon the 2-2 and pivo play will flourish. And variations of Mikan like isolation drills will no doubt play a part.

Toni Farreras of ProFive Academy of Barcelona

Toni Farreras | Founder Toni grew up in the home town of our Profive Academy and is where he lives with his young family. Toni works as a local warehouse manager in a local company in Canet. As a player, Toni played his entire youth at the highest level of Futsal in Spain. Playing 4 years in the Second Division with Canet F.S. and representing Catalonia in the Catalan Team. As a coach, Toni currently coaches Canet F.S seniors and has been coaching youth and senior Futsal teams at the highest level in Spain. Coaching at Canet FS, Mataro, Les Corts and Pineda FS. Highlights are aplenty but winning the Catalonia Cup with his U12 team beating Barca, is still high on the list. Toni has level 2 national coach qualification.

Toni, I had the pleasure of learning from you a couple years ago at United Futsal’s Top 12 Experience. I remember very clearly your passion, knowledge, and friendliness. You were completely immersed in the game. It was quite inspirational. So I appreciate you taking time to sit down and reflect on your coaching career and your love of futsal.

What are your earliest futsal memories and why do you feel so passionate about the sport?

The truth is that I started playing futsal at the age of 9 while I was doing PE! Then I saw on TV that a lot of futsal matches were being played every week. Teams like Interviu Boomerang, El Pozo Murcia, and Caja Segovia were some of the first teams. From there I was hooked. I’ve never stopped watching futsal since.

So, you can imagine, I have lived futsal since I was very young. I have watched thousands of matches on TV, in arenas, at tournaments, leagues, but always futsal. I have actually never played soccer, ever!! The adrenalin you can feel in your veins when playing or watching this amazing sport is irreplaceable. Once you taste it, you are hooked and you will never want to change it for another sport!!

You have a well earned reputation as one of the top youth coaches in Spain. What are the qualities that allow you to connect so well with players and other coaches? What are your principles as a director and coach?

Probably the best people to answer these questions are the players I’ve coached during all those years. I started coaching at the age of 14, so I think starting early definitely helps. Since that time my thoughts have changed so much!! You never stop learning.

To really understand any subject, the best way in my opinion, is to teach it. What I really try to do is have the players understand the game!! This is my ultimate goal. The player should understand why, when, and how they do or should do things on the court. Before talking of systems, the player must understand the game and all the concepts that are in motion during it. Once he understands this, he will be able to play any system.

I am close to my players and speak a lot to them as individuals. I ask thousands of questions just trying to get them to think and develop. Never make them choose the easy options or the easy ways. That is when you develop robots on the court. Players that just do the same movements without reading the game while it’s played. Another aspect is to make sure everyone on the team speaks the same language. It is important that your ideas and words as a coach are understood by each player in the same way. Then you will be starting a team, but not before that! And lastly, transmit your passion as they will only be as passionate as we are.

Along with Antoine Stinissen and Miguel Puig Gonzales, you recently founded ProFive Academy. Can you speak a bit to the ideas behind your program and what you hope to accomplish?

We really wanted to do our bit for the game of futsal. It’s a fantastic game of skill, pace, passion, and joy. We want everyone to enjoy it as we believe everyone deserves it. We want to provide everyone an opportunity to experience the game at its best. To see how it should really be played, watched, taught, and experienced. In many countries futsal is still in its infancy, so we really want to give players, coaches, and teams the opportunity to come to Spain and for us to show why we are so passionate about this beautiful little game and pass on our knowledge.

 

Exclusive interview with Rob Andrews

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It’s a real pleasure to have Rob Andrews, founder and president of United Futsal with us. Rob has overseen UF’s meteoric rise this past decade and continues to be the sport’s most influential figure stateside.

Rob, United Futsal recently launched the Champions Cup Series. Can you talk a bit about how it’s structured and what you hope this series of tournaments will provide?

The Champions Cup Series is a response to the feedback we’ve received over nine years of working the industry for how futsal should grow in the US. We found out in building it that people were looking for a pathway. A player that wants to enter knows that it’s easier through soccer, but what is the pathway for me as a futsal player? The first step to that is creating a consistent, high level national calendar for futsal every year that is in collaboration and not in conflict with the soccer clubs. And the second thing is to provide opportunities for the players that they can experience top level coaching from people all around the world, from the biggest and most experienced clubs. I’ve been amazed at the feedback from those people that are willing and wanting to help us. They’re ready to impart their knowledge on these players, these coaches, these referees, and clubs. They want to teach them how to build futsal. There’s so much interest in helping to grow the game globally. All we were missing was a pathway. And the Champions Cup Series will create that pathway.

In recent years the number of new futsal clubs across the US has increased dramatically. Some are more successful than others. What do these clubs have in common? What are they doing right? What can new clubs learn from them?

We have seen throughout the US and abroad in the international partnerships that we have there are three real ingredients that make the perfect recipe for a development first futsal club in the US. And first is the player pool. Having access to a talented player pool that’s interested in what’s going on and is ready to commit themselves to training. You can’t train players if you don’t have players. The second is a facility. Having a consistent and dedicated place. It doesn’t have to be the perfect size, it doesn’t have to be in the perfect condition, it doesn’t need to be a crystal palace type of Taj Mahal, but it does need to have consistent hours and goals. So when you get there training is on and kids can count on it. The consistency of training is crucial and the facility is vital to that. The third component that is a constant evolution is the coach, basically the know how. The coach or director above them has got to be relentless in pursuing education, pursuing knowledge. They have to be not prideful. They need to be humble with their knowledge. You’ll be amazed how many people around the world are willing and desire to help those people to build their clubs. It’s very different than a business in other industries where people are guarding their secrets and proprietary information. The futsal community is very open, and so long as the directors and coaches are interested and eager in learning, there’s ample information out there that United Futsal will be helping to provide to our Champions Cup Series clubs to help to grow the sport. So to wrap it up: a player pool, a consistent training environment and facility to go along with that, and a willingness and eagerness to learn is all you need. That is what makes a club successful versus one that is not.

Futsal in the US has seen explosive growth in the past decade and United Futsal has been right in the middle of it. From hosting the Intercontinental Cup in Greensboro in 2013 to establishing the world’s two most prestigious youth tournaments with the World Futsal Championships in Orlando and the World Futsal Cup in Barcelona, United Futsal has changed the competitive landscape. What are you most proud of? And what do the next 10 years hold for United Futsal and US futsal in general?

That’s probably the toughest question because we probably don’t pick our head up very often and look around at what we’ve accomplished and where we’ve gotten to because there’s still so much work to be done. I think what makes me most proud is when I think back on the almost ten years that we’ve been around, are the relationships that we’ve made through the process and seeing the growth and success of people that we have helped along the way and have collaborated with. I think futsal is too big for one person, for one group to be able to form or create, or develop and grow. So it’s going to take everybody working together. The modification of the name to United Futsal really fits with our character, trying to unite not only the US, but also the world. And I think working with the same groups over the last five, six, seven years, allows us to see their growth and the opportunities they’re fighting for. Seeing the development of the players from the US at the World Futsal Cup, at the World Futsal Championship where we’re seeing American teams win, beating Brazilian teams. And we’re seeing the level of Brazil still growing. Those are the type of things that really I would say make me proud as a person who got into this industry, but it also fits within our character. This motivates us to keep our head down and make the next ten years even better.

United Futsal’s World Futsal Cup – VIII

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

Brazil – 3 take aways

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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.

 

“Sickness” in Santos

The Urban Dictionary describes the word sick as crazy, cool, insane, awesome, hot, fabulous, great. And by that definition, Santos FC’s futsal program located at Vila Belmiro on Rua Princesa Isabel in the coastal city of Santos, may be the sickest place on the planet. The Black Plague, the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, and Woody Harrelson’s Zombieland all pale in comparison.

Getting a ticket to observe a Santos training is the most difficult one in town. If for no other reason because no tickets exist. Training is off limits to parents and the public. And yet there I was, thanks to Federico Mariel of City Futsal, standing by myself on a court side balcony witnessing otherworldly play. On the opposite wall, a giant poster of Neymar, Rodrygo, Gabigol, and a dozen other homegrown players reminded everyone of futsal’s importance in giant 24-inch lettering: OUR GREATEST FOOTBALL PLAYERS PLAYED FUTSAL.

But the clincher wasn’t the poster. It was a dozen 12-year-olds that connected the dots for me. It’s one thing to see videos of Ronaldinho or Neymar playing futsal as youths, but to actually see a live game where superior ball control was the rule and not the exception was humbling. At least half of the players seemingly could not be dispossessed. Even with in-your-face, aggressive defending, these players found a way to feint, juke, and bypass defenders. But the technique was just the top layer on this Bolo Mousse de Maracuyá. Underneath, in equally impressive amounts, tactical awareness, movement off-the-ball, and decision making were layered in. Apparently at Santos FC you can have your cake and eat it, too. Just sick.

 

 

“Chaos” in Barcelona

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United Futsal’s annual Top 12 tour unites aspiring international players with coaches from FC Barcelona’s youth program each Spring in Catalonia. Led by Xavi Closas, head coach of Barça Lassa B, the camp also allows visiting coaches to directly access the philosophy and ideas of the famous academy. Most of these ideas are taught through exercises involving high levels of decision making.

During each of my three visits, Xavi starts with the most disarming of introductions, “I apologize if many of our exercises look unorganized, but the chaos leads to a deeper level of learning.” And this is Xavi in all his coaching genius: direct, humble, and off-the-charts knowledgable. Like every master teacher, he takes enormous pride in teaching the game. He’s highly competitive and wants to win as much as anyone else, but not at the expense of his players’ sporting education. It’s his job to provide the pro team with well rounded players that can process the game quickly under time and space constraints. Decision making is at a premium.

So what does organized chaos look like? It largely falls into three categories: PE like tag games, rondos, and numbers-up exercises. It’s been said every coach should have at least 10 versions of rondo in their coaching toolbox. I would add 10 tag and 10 numbers-up drills into this kit.

Tag

Freeze tag, Zombie tag, Pac-Man tag and even Sharks & Minnows are all versions of the age old game of tag. From PE classes to youth soccer recreation programs, tag is a staple. These games tend to disappear the older players get. My sons, ages 11 and 13, haven’t played them in years on the soccer side. And yet, every time I’ve visited Spain, they are embedded in the curriculum even at the pro level. But what exactly makes these “children’s” games so important in developing top notch decision makers? For one, the cognitive abilities needed to process multiple players moving in various directions and determine whether they are friend or foe is substantial. Layer in the fun factor, and you’ve got a near ideal exercise for developing thinking skills. Improved technique then factors in almost as a byproduct of this fun and learning.

Rondos

The benefits of rondos are well documented. That said, not all rondos are created equal. The ones favored by top coaches often include lots of off-the-ball movement. The traditional stand-in-a-circle and ping the ball around rondo is rarely seen in actual trainings. It usually occurs when players informally gather before a game or practice. Coach guided rondos usually emphasize the prized pass-and-move aspect. Pass-and-move is really just another way of saying pass-and-think of where you’re going next. Adding to this movement theme, the FCB staff presented a rondo that replicated the rotation found in the 3-1 formation. Technique, tactics, and decision making all married into one drill. Coaching nirvana achieved!

Numbers-up

2v1, 3v2, and 4v2, etc. are nothing new to US coaches. These numerical advantages are found in basketball, hockey, and any invasion based game. That said, I’m continually impressed with the variety and urgency of these exercises found in Spain. Players are urged to attack at breakneck speed in an attempt to replicate the pace of a counter attack in an actual game. Simple enough, right? And yet, over the years I’ve witnessed at numerous camps at home and abroad, players from top academies in the States struggle with the basics of numbers-up situations. Here at home, players are often allowed infinite amounts of time to complete 2v1 situations. Unfortunately, in a real soccer or futsal game, the defense will recover within a second or two. For this reason, emphasizing urgency is critical in helping our players effectively solve these moving puzzles. If players make mistakes due to the fast pace, that’s okay. At the end of the day, it’s all about the learning.

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