Neymar, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The final shortlist for 2015’s Ballon d’Or and in many eyes the best three footballers on the planet. For most it came as no surprise when Lionel Messi won a recorded breaking fifth award in seven years. It was also the eighth consecutive year that either the Argentine or Real Madrid forward Ronaldo have won football's most coveted individual award.
But there is something that links these three players, not just with each other, but with many other legends of the game both past and present. Legends such as Xavi and Iniesta, Ronaldinho and Kaka, and even the greatest of them all, Pele, all began their love of football not on the pitch, but on the court.
“In futsal, you see whether a player is really talented. In normal football you don't necessarily identify talent as easily because it's so much more physical. But with Futsal, you notice the small details in quality, class and tactical understanding." Those were the words of former Spain and Barcelona midfielder Xavi during the 2012 Futsal world cup in Thailand, and the rise of football's baby brother is now sweeping through Scotland.
A variant of standard association football, Futsal is a five-a-side game played mainly indoors with a smaller, heavier ball. Unlimited substitutions are allowed, and the games smaller pitches and higher tempo create an emphasis on improvisation, creativity and technique as well as ball control and passing in small spaces.
In 2015, Russell Taylor founded ‘Futsal Escocia’ in Fife, Scotland’s first ever Futsal league for youngsters, after being inspired by similar events on TV where many of the game’s greatest players continue to dazzle, and this weekend saw the climax of a ground breaking debut season.
Following initial coaching sessions at Inverkeithing last January, interest in Futsal quickly spread. One session a week became three, before other venues in Dunfermline and Cowdenbeath had to be set up to cope with demand.
Despite the success of those initial sessions, Russell was keen to get competitive game time for the players, and in 2015 a summer tournament was arranged. "We ran a tournament just through the summer break, at '04 and '05 level, and all the teams that participated in it loved it, and all the teams that participated in it then signed up for the winter league."
The Winter League has been an even bigger event, and culminated this weekend at Beath High School. As well as sides from the summer event, Russell was able to gain support from teams all across Fife, and in total over the three months fifty teams have competed against each other, with the league running from November through to this weekend, with teams from '04, '05, '06 and '07 levels all taking part.
The popularity of the sport is not surprising, with the games adjusted rules encouraging more free flowing passages of play, and with less interruptions the intensity levels are kept consistently high. The games requirement for a more technical, less physical style is something Russell is keen to point out. "
Futsal is a little bit different in that you’re not reliant on the physical aspect of it, you’ll be lucky if there were five fouls in whole day today, so it’s more a technical element…the benefits of it are control and game awareness, you’ve got to be a lot sharper… Some players are good on the ball but in Futsal, if you’re not good off the ball as well, you get punished."
Russell is all too aware of Futsal’s unseen and perhaps under-appreciated influence on the modern professional game, and points to the fact that eight players from the current FIFPRO World Eleven began their careers playing Futsal.
"Certainly at seven-a-side the kids that excel are powerful, strong and pacey, and can kick the ball harder… But when they get bigger that’s taken away. There’s not as much space to run into when there’s eleven players on the pitch, and the ones that are maybe more technically gifted at Futsal will probably find that they are the better players when they’re older, but at the moment are probably overlooked at academies because they’re on a bigger pitch."
The claim that Futsal teaches increased technique, control and game awareness certainly carries some weight. For decades now the sport has been much loved in South America and Sothern Europe, and a quick look back over the nationalities of Ballon d’Or winners for the last twenty years will show you that fifteen of those twenty winners were from either South America or Southern Europe.
Given the games influence on young players, and following on from the success of Futsal Escocia’s ground breaking first year, Russell is now keen to expand the programme, starting with another tournament pencilled in for this summer, and an expanded Winter League to follow.
"What we’ll probably do is run it over two days in the summer, with groups playing on Saturday and then the winners of those groups playing each other on the Sunday… We had fifty teams this year and hopefully, with interest is high as this we could reach seventy teams for the league next year."
With one hundred players from teams all across Fife already on the books at the weekly Futsal Escocia coaching sessions, Russell is also looking to build competitive teams at '04, '05, '06 and '07 levels to play in the newly formed Scottish Youth Futsal Federation, which will involve playing against teams from all across Scotland, and is testament to the sports rising popularity.
And for anyone who remains unconvinced by Futsal’s potential to improve development and sharpen your game awareness, you need look no further than the current best in the business. “As a little boy in Argentina, I played futsal on the streets and for my club. It was tremendous fun and it really helped me become who I am today" – Lionel Messi, record breaking five-time Ballon d’Or winner.
Players and coaches can get involved in Futsal through their local club, or through the Futsal Escocia website and Facebook page.