The inescapable importance of futsal

. May 18, 2020
futsal brazil Brazil plays Argentina at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games. Photo: Danilo Borges/Rede do Esporte

Welcome back to the Brazil Sports newsletter. With the death of Brazil’s “father of futsal,” we look at the history of the sport and its massive influence on football as a whole. Also, with football fans in Brazil suffering extreme withdrawal symptoms, broadcasters are showing classic title wins of the country’s biggest clubs. Enjoy your read!

The legacy of futsal in Brazil, for better or for worse

Last week, journalist Newton Zarani died at the age of 93, after suffering a stroke. Despite being one of Brazil’s leading football journalists during the 1950s and 1960s, he is best known for his work in futsal, helping to create the Rio de Janeiro Futsal Federation in 1954, the first such organization of the sport in the country.

Futsal? Created in the first half of the 20th century, futsal became a growing option for children and adults alike as Brazil’s large cities became more and more cramped, and full-size pitches became more scarce. Played on hard indoor sports courts, futsal differs from association football in that the ball is smaller and heavier, with the sport meant to be played on the ground and favoring short passes and dribbles.

Ballroom football. The name futsal is an abbreviation of futebol de salão, which literally translates as “ballroom football.” According to the late Newton Zarani, “it was classy football, with neat touches, pretty dribbles, and no heavy fouls,” hence the name.

Youth players. The original benefit of futsal, allowing people to play where full-sized grass pitches were unavailable, became even more pressing in the 21st century. Urban violence became a constant fear for residents of big cities, and closed housing complexes and membership clubs became extremely prevalent. As a result, kids learning football would often get their start in escolinhas — “little schools” — which practiced futsal as a less-physical alternative to football, later feeding into proper 11-a-side association play.

Bad habits. Brazilian footballers are haunted by the stereotype of going down too easily in the tackle and looking for free-kicks whenever possible. While this is a trait shown by players all over the world — not just Brazil — there is a certain prevalence of “foul-seeking” in Brazilian play. The popularity of futsal as an initiation sport to football could go some way to explain that. Based on dribbles and reduced contact, futsal will penalize a large portion of contact that is acceptable in association football. Largely, if a player goes down under a tackle, he/she will be given a free-kick. This ended up translating into the professional game.

Exceptions. An overwhelming majority of Brazilian footballers got their start playing futsal in escolinhas, helping to shape the quite distinct characteristics of typical 21st-century Brazilian footballers. However, a few youngsters who grew up on street football and 11-a-side amateur football still make it through the ranks.

  • The best example is Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus, who developed his skills playing amateur football in the north zone of São Paulo. Competing against people of all ages in often violent and overly physical matches, players who come through these leagues are visibly different footballers. With the literal need to develop self-defense, Gabriel Jesus displays an incredible command of his weight. Despite his slight physique, he can push much larger players off the ball and escape losing out in physical battles, a technique seen in amateur and street football all over Brazil.

Reliving historic titles in Brazil

gabriel barbosa libertadores
Gabriel Barbosa celebrates the Copa Libertadores title. Photo: Alexandre Vidal/CRF

After showing reruns of famous victories of the Brazilian national team, TV broadcasters are now airing momentous title-winning matches of some of the country’s biggest club sides every Sunday afternoon, in the traditional 4 pm kick-off slot.

Withdrawal. The thirst for a return to football is such that Brazil’s sports pages have included in-depth coverage of the German Bundesliga — which returned this past weekend — as well as mentions of the South Korean K-League. While reliving international glories was well received, it doesn’t quite scratch the itch of the Brazilian football fan, who places much more importance on club competitions.

Reliving the title. On Sunday afternoon in São Paulo, fireworks were heard in a number of the city’s neighborhoods as Paolo Guerrero scored the winning goal for Corinthians to defeat Chelsea in the 2012 Club World Cup. In Rio, there were similar reports as TV Globo showed Flamengo’s dramatic last-minute winner against River Plate in last year’s Copa Libertadores final.

Size of a continent. Thanks to the size of Brazil, each region is very particular about its football consumption. In the south-east state of Minas Gerais, showing Rio de Janeiro club Flamengo on local TV would attract little to no viewers, so TV Globo instead chose to broadcast Atlético-MG’s 2013 Copa Libertadores triumph over Paraguayan side Olimpia.

Here were some of Sunday’s offerings, broadcast around Brazil:

  • Corinthians 1-0 Chelsea, 2012 Club World Cup final. Tite’s imperious Corinthians side marched all the way to the Copa Libertadores title and then to world glory by sticking to a strict, well-drilled gameplan, based on the entire team defending diligently whenever they lost possession. The victory against Chelsea was something of an anomaly, as the English side had been surprise winners of the Champions League earlier that year. The title-winning side had been transformed completely and they would not have been considered among the top ten European clubs of the time. It is likely to be the last time a South American nation outplayed European opponents at the Club World Cup.
  • Flamengo 2-1 River Plate, 2019 Copa Libertadores final. Without hyperbole, last year’s Flamengo side is the best team to come out of South America in a couple of decades. Managed by Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus and bolstered by the wonderful talents of Gabriel Barbosa, Bruno Henrique, Gerson, and Giorgian De Arrascaeta, they blew away all comers last year, winning the Brazilian and South American championships. Interestingly enough, however, the Libertadores final against River Plate was one of Flamengo’s poorest performances under Jorge Jesus. One-nil down and struggling with a handful of minutes left on the clock, a fairytale brace from Gabriel Barbosa won the trophy for the rightful owners.
  • Atlético-MG 2-0 Olimpia, 2013 Copa Libertadores final. On paper, this Atlético-MG team was never going to work out. With players such as an aging Ronaldinho, Everton flop Jô, Diego Tardelli, Luan, and Guilherme among their ranks, it was said that this would be a good group of players to organize a barbecue, but not to win continental silverware. Led by ultra-attacking coach Cuca, Atlético-MG embarked on one of the most thrilling title runs in living memory, flying by the seat of their pants, grabbing last-minute winners, heroic turnarounds and nail-biting penalty saves.
Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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