By Henry Winter, Football Correspondent, The Telegraph, Rio de Janeiro
(27 June 2014) – When Brazil are in possession, when their players are steering the ball through tight areas, their debt to futsal is demonstrated. When Oscar and Fernandinho struck those trademark toe-poked finishes against Croatia and Cameroon respectively, their early days playing futsal was celebrated.
Neymar and others were raised the futsal way, the approach that Brazil will hope will help them overcome Chile at Belo Horizonte on Saturday.
First taking hold in Latin America in the Thirties, futsal has become more codified and formalised with a smaller, heavier ball used in a five-a-side game in a hall. Futsal’s spirit suffuses Oscar, accentuating close control, decision-making, responsibility-taking by providing constant exposure to one-on-one situations.
Now of Chelsea, the 22-year-old was raised in the Americana area of Sao Paulo, developing his skills on a little pitch attached to an escolinha, a nearby football school, and also in a hall where he played futsal.
“I’d learnt how to play from trial and error, playing on my own, either in games on the pitch in the park or in the hall where we played futebol de salao, – futsal’,’’ says Oscar. “I used to play futsal all the time, right up until I turned professional at 16. I think Brazilian football has reached the level it has because of futsal. The pitch is smaller. The goals are smaller.
“You have to be faster in everything you do; particularly, you have to make quick decisions. If you’re dribbling, you have to do it by controlling the ball in a much smaller space. If you’re shooting, you must be much more accurate because the goal – the target – is smaller. There are skills you learn better playing futebol de salao and I loved the game. I still play now whenever I get the chance.’’
Brazil’s No 11 outlines his love for futsal and many other elements of life in his homeland in Oscar’s Brazil, an elegant, often moving book written with Tom Watt (Blink Publishing).
“Everything that’s beautiful in football is in futebol de salao, and that’s why I like it so much,’’ says Oscar.
“I learnt football by playing it, in futsal, in the escolinhas, in the street and in the park. By the time I joined Sao Paulo, I had already developed my style of play. At the club, they just had to say to me, ‘Go here and then do what you already know. Or: Do this and then just do what you know’. It was learning the tactical side of the game.” The skill was already there, nurtured during countless hours of futsal.
Oscar is just one of many luminaries to credit futsal with helping making them into such technically accomplished players. Pele, Zico, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Neymar form a strong line of Brazilians (let alone Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi and Cesc Fabregas from other equally enlightened footballing countries).
The World Cup highlighted many English deficiencies that could partly be remedied by a greater grasp of the importance of futsal, acquiring the skills that can then be transferred to 11-a-side. The FA began backing futsal in 2008 and numbers of regular players have risen impressively: 80 teams took part in the first National Youth futsal festival, now 2,500 are involved. The attraction is obvious: a study by Liverpool John Moores University found that players were six times more likely to receive the ball in futsal five-a-sides than in 11-a-sides.
“Futsal has its benefits and is part of the jigsaw of a player’s development,” said Roger Davies, the National Game Coaching in Education Manager at the FA. “The ’toe bung’ as we as kids used to call it was laughed at when we used to play in the street or on the rec but now seen on the world stage as another tool in the modern striker’s tool box!”
The type of pressure that weighs down on England can also be found in Brazil, probably more so, but Oscar and company seem to relish it. “What’s important is to recognise our responsibilities and take them seriously as players but not to let the pressure inhibit us,’’ says Oscar. “When the whistle blows for kick-off, we have to make sure we let the joy in our football come through. If we do that, we know we’ll have 200m Brazilians on our side, cheering us on.
“We have to be true to ourselves and true to our football ideals and not let the scale of the event, the importance of a World Cup in Brazil, stop us playing the way we all want football to be played.”
So far Oscar has been true to his word. Brazil have lived up to expectations, although the stalemate with Mexico in Fortaleza was frustrating. But this is knockout football now, no room for errors, no safety net and no mercy from those counter-attacking Chileans if Luis Felipe Scolari’s defence goes walkabout.
Chile have just the type of attacking wide players, including their wing-backs Eugenio Mena and especially Mauricio Isla, who can fly into the areas vacated by Brazil’s attacking full-backs, Dani Alves and Marcelo.
Scolari’s centre-halves, Thiago Silva and David Luiz, have yet to convince fully and can be dragged apart, leaving gaps for Alexis Sanchez, Eduardo Vargas and Arturo Vidal to pour into. The expectation is that they will be shielded by Luiz Gustavo and Fernandinho, replacing the disappointing Paulinho. Oscar is expected to start in the centre, linking with Fred, with Hulk and Neymar (nominally) wide.
With due respect to this zestful Chilean side and their noisy fans, this World Cup needs a Brazil win in Belo Horizonte. Spending time out here it is easy to gain the viewpoint that the country is held together by the ball, and particularly the passion for the Selecao. This nation would be plunged into mourning if Chile wreck the party.
Everyone has a take on the team, on Scolari’s tactics, on Brazil’s prospects.
Football is second only to oxygen in daily priorities here. At 2am there are games on the beaches. Walk down a side-street at 8am and half the residents are emerging from homes with green and yellow in their work attire. Belo Horizonte currently stages a festival of football films. One beachcomber in Rio wears his ‘Brasil 70’ shirt. Neymar Jr No 10 shirts seem the national uniform.
Being driven at considerable speed to Maracana by a cabbie who took his hands off the wheel to cross himself three times en route, the man’s love of the Selecao was supreme. He became emotional when this passenger, slightly relieved to arrive in one piece, wished Brazil good luck against Chile. The team means beauty, escapism, patriotism and hope. At least he was not one of the taxi drivers with a television on the dashboard showing games while playing the local pastime of who’s lane is it anyway.
Everyone here has views on Neymar, Oscar, Hulk and whether they live up to the greats of the past. Oscar grew up watching Ronaldo falter in Paris and then excel in Yokohama four years later.
He knows the legend of 1970, has seen the footage, met many of the icons from that special side.
“When I look at the Brazil team of 1970, I can see they were great players: Pele, Jairzinho, Rivelino, Tostao, but I also see that kind of togetherness we had as a group of young boys at Sao Paulo. Look at the fourth goal in the final against Italy: from one end of the field to the other; pass after pass after pass and Carlos Alberto – the right back – is the one who scores. That kind of goal is only possible when there’s a very special bond in a team.”
Oscar believes there is a similar bond in the team now. They will need fortitude when Chile come raiding. Oscar wants to win while bequeathing special memories like Pele, who is also revered for a goal he never scored, the dummying of the Uruguayan keeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz in 1970.
It was innovation and impudence rolled into one. Pele simply let the ball from Tostao travel one way past Mazurkiewicz while he darted the other. Sadly, his shot back across went wide.
“That was such a beautiful thing to do and every Brazilian laments that it didn’t go in, that it wasn’t the beautiful goal it could have been,’’ says Oscar. “But we remember it, don’t we?”