As Ronaldinho receives the ball on the edge of the crowded Chelsea penalty, his options are at a premium. The Brazilian stops the ball dead, Ricardo Carvalho just steps away from him, feinting twice to put the Portuguese centre-back off balance.
Still surrounded by blue shirts, Ronaldinho realises there’s little else he can do. Without a second consideration, the reigning World Player of the Year clips an audacious shot with the tip of his toe beyond a stunned Petr Cech in the Chelsea goal.
It was a moment of Samba skill that you wouldn’t expect from even the most mercurial Englishman. Although that could all be about to change.
Ronaldinho’s toe-poke goal for Barcelona against Chelsea in the 2005 Champions League may have dazzled on a football pitch watched by millions, but it was borne from the futsal court. And now, after decades of ignoring the merits of the small-sided game, England’s FA is finally ready to embrace the sport in its bid to end 52 years without an international trophy.
Just months after Gareth Southgate was confirmed as the latest England manager, the FA’s first ever futsal head coach and elite performance manager took up his position to much less fanfare. But Michael Skubala’s role is no less important to England’s long-term success than Southgate’s – if not more so.
With a quest to get more youngsters playing futsal, Skubala is leading a revolution. One that, it is hoped, will spawn more technically gifted English players who are capable of conjuring up match-winning inspiration like Ronaldinho.
The logic is steadfast. A large proportion of the world’s top stars, including Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, grew up on a diet of futsal’s fast-paced play, while many of the world’s top nations swear by it. In fact, the correlation between being successful in the two sports are clear, with four of futsal’s world top five also within the top six of FIFA’s global football rankings.
Don’t expect for things to change overnight though, with England’s futsal side currently languishing in 53rd below a host of minnows, such as Solomon Islands and Vietnam.
“There is an argument – that I’m not totally sure about – that teams will never win a football World Cup unless they play futsal properly,” Skubala said in a 2017 book, Learning Curve.
“But if you look at the countries who play it well, you can understand it. They all have developed futsal programmes in their schools and leagues, and we’re light years behind as a football nation because we’ve got this stiff upper lip about getting players outside on the grass.”
Since starting the role a year ago, Skubala is already making headway. While futsal’s status in the English professional game is barely worthy of mention – Watford’s Will Hughes is understood to be England’s highest-profile futsal disciple currently playing professionally – a movement is beginning to stir at grassroots level.
Last October, the FA announced that several Football Foundation grants would be made available to schools, colleges and youth football leagues to create 200 futsal hubs around the country. Uptake has been good, with fully furbished futsal courts appearing in counties up and down England that are giving thousands of youngsters the chance to try the sport for the first time.
It’s the first step of the FA’s plan to raise awareness of the game and its benefits, while also showing that futsal is more than simply five-a-side football played with a ball that doesn’t bounce.
Anybody who watched Spain’s all-conquering tiki-taka masters or England’s lacklustre attempts at emulating them at recent major tournaments will have witnessed what futsal technique – or a lack of – can have on the world stage.
“The ball at the top level of futsal moves seven times faster than it does in football,” Skubala continued in his interview for Learning Curve.
“That means Spain can get through a defensive block because if they haven’t got space, they’ve learned how to get past that, whereas England can’t get through a block. We think we can do it, but we’re not trained to as kids.
“Conversely, when you talk about pressing, futsal players do it a lot quicker than others because it’s a technique that comes from playing the sport. Iceland, for example, have a strong indoor futsal programme, so when they blocked out England to beat them in the Europe, it was no real surprise because they have defenders who learned how to do that through futsal.”
If the FA’s futsal revolution is successful, then the hope is that there will be fewer instances of England heartbreak in years to come. Well, maybe.