Probably the greatest sight in football today is to watch Lionel Messi receive the ball deep and begin mesmerising runs at the opposition defence. Drop of a shoulder here, powerful burst there, he manages to surge past increasing number of players with ridiculous ease. He somehow seems to see spaces that others do not and pick passes that no one would even contemplate, let alone execute on. His countryman, Diego Maradona, used to do it as well. Just that in the 80’s, he would be chopped down to the ground more often than not. The rules did not protect players the way they do today.
Football has evolved. For a contact sport, there’s hardly any contact allowed anymore. Make no mistake, physicality is still a major factor. One only needs to listen to Gordon Strachan who cited genetics as a major reason why his Scotland side did not make it to the World Cup next year. However, the manifestation of that physicality has less to do with a player leaving a mark on an opponent (literally) and more with straining every sinew out of his or her body to win a ball, run past an opponent or deliver on tactics.
It is technical ability that truly sets the best players and teams apart these days. Messi and Barcelona. Isco and Spain. Kroos and Germany. Neymar and Brazil. The best players and teams hone their technical skills all the time. Think Pep Guardiola and the ‘Rondo’. A training exercise that involves quick, accurate passing routines within the confines of a small circle of players. Concentration, speed, pressing, possession and finding spaces, all of which are honed through the exercise.
Teams the world over are reducing the size of spaces that they train in for these reasons. Watch the elite teams and see how they navigate the ball in tight spaces. Tactics and physicality can be replicated. Technical ability is a different animal altogether.
More and more countries are waking upto the possibilities that Futsal, the indoor version of football, offers in this area. FIFA have been organising Futsal World Cups since 1989, the year they became the governing body. Since they started, these tournaments have been dominated by Brazil and Spain, with current champions, Argentina, being the only one to break that dominance. So many footballing greats from these countries got introduced to the game through Futsal, including Messi, and the impact it has had on their footballing education can be seen in the way they play the game. The football federations of England and Germany have in recent years realised that they need to invest in Futsal and have announced plans to grow the game in their countries.
The All India Football Federation’s vision for Indian football is contingent on building key support structures at the grassroots and youth development level. That lays the base for the national team, clubs, leagues and competitions to thrive.
This plan, called the NYDP, recommends that young players below the age of twelve taking up the game play small sided games (SSGs). However, the people who have drafted this plan also warn that this plan will never be successful without the realisation of the National Facility Plan (NFP). And the lack of infrastructure, more than anything else is the biggest impediment to the growth of football in the country.
Futsal, in some ways through necessity than requirement, may be the way to go to take football beyond the traditional hubs in the country. In a poor country like ours, space is a constraint. In cities like Mumbai, it is almost impossible to find grass fields to play on. Which is why 50-60 futsal courts have mushroomed all over the place in the last few years. It is a lot cheaper to build futsal courts than fully fledged grass facilities, especially with private investment, as is the case with these courts.
While larger facilities are the way forward in the long run, futsal could be the first step in attracting young children to the sport, especially in smaller towns and villages. Messi, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Juninho were all kids from poor neighbourhoods who found the game this way. A greater pool of players to choose from at youth level, with decent technical skills worked on at futsal courts, might be the base for future Indian stars to shine on the national and international stage.