While the stereotype follows that Brazilians hone their football skills on the beach, the truth is that most Brazilian footballers hone their skills indoors. Futsal, which is short for ‘futebol de salão’ (‘indoor football’) is thought to have originated in Brazil in the 1930s (some Uruguayans might dispute this, there is some suggestion that this version of football originated slightly to the south of Brazil).
The recently passed Pele was born in the landlocked state of Minas Gerais and his hometown, Tres Coracões, is about as far from the beach as it is possible to be in Brazil. He honed his skills playing futsal, as Rivelino, Zico, Ronaldo and Romario did subsequently.
Indoor courts were a convenient way for Brazilians to play due to the difficulty of finding suitable grass patches outdoors. Popular Brazilian football expressions hint at some of these nascent difficulties. The dribble popularised by Stanley Matthews, where you push the ball around a defender and run around the other side, is known as “drible de vaca” in Portuguese, literally “cow dribble.”
It emanates from a time when people would play on farmland and the prospect of having to dribble around a stray bovine was a regular occurrence. When the ball strikes the top corner of the crossbar, the Portuguese expression is “onde a coruja dorme” or “where the owl sleeps.”
A particularly floaty style of shot is known as “folha seca” or “dry leaf.” These phrases, coined in the early iterations of football in the country, are soaked in the language- and the perils- of the nature that surrounded them. Futsal was a neat way of finding a more suitable space to play.
In futsal, the ball is typically heavier and smaller and the surface it is played on is hard. The court is also small, limiting the amount of time and space players have to operate. It is here where many a legendary Brazilian player has crafted their close control.
This was very much the case for Gabriel Martinelli. Earlier this year he told Soccer Bible, “I didn’t play that much on the streets, like you hear of some players, because for me there was a Futsal academy right next to my house. My Dad used to take me there to play football.”
Martinelli’s debt to futsal is immediately obvious to anyone with a passing familiarity with the sport. Martinelli was signed up to play for Corinthians’ futsal team as a teenager, he didn’t really start to seriously play football until his family moved to Guarulhos due to his father’s work and he left the Corinthians futsal team to play for Ituano.
In the interview with Soccer Bible, Martinelli continued, “It was so important and it has helped me so much with my control and things like that. Even today on the grass I still control the ball in the same way that I used to on the Futsal court. Sometimes you can see it in other players as well. You might see how someone controls the ball and think ‘he’s played Futsal as well’.
The way that Martinelli controls the ball, for example, comes from his futsal upbringing. The way he traps the ball for a split second, inviting the challenge, before pushing it away and getting away from his full-back at light speed. In futsal, there is little time for elaboration and Martinelli’s style is not elaborate or even that smooth to the eye.
Another common futsal trait is the quick but delicate shift from one foot to another. Look at his recent goal against West Ham by way of example. It is difficult to describe in words but sometimes, when you witness a goal live inside a stadium, it takes you by surprise.
We become subconsciously so immersed in certain rhythms and beats when we watch attacks unfold and occasionally, someone does something in a manner that disturbs that 4/4 rhythm. This is how I would explain Martinelli’s goals against West Ham and Brighton.
On both occasions, the goalkeeper has borne the brunt of the blame for seemingly allowing tame shots to go through them. But witnessing both in the stadium, there was a sense of surprise, shock even, in the execution. Martinelli often strikes the ball half a second earlier than you expect, his stride seems to be punctuated and that comes from playing in the time pressured surroundings of futsal where each quarter second counts.
A common trait of futsal goals is to shift the ball from foot to foot before hitting the back of the ball firmly and along the ground. Martinelli’s goal against West Ham and his assist for Nketiah against Brighton are good examples of this. Because the futsal ball is heavier, players often have to strike the back of the ball firmly and the small goals mean along the ground finishes are a necessity.
The toe poke finish at Brighton was absolutely reminiscent of Romario, one of the most famous beneficiaries of futsal. Again, the weight of the ball and the need to keep it on the ground make the toe poke a preferred flourish in futsal.
Martinelli’s goal at Brighton was so reminiscent of a futsal goal that it might as well have happened on a hard court. Martinelli seldom elaborates or embellishes on the ball. His objective every time he gets the ball is to get it as close to the goal as possible by any means necessary.
Again, that is likely attributable to the futsal environment which prizes instinct, necessity and economy. It’s why the player does not have many of the bows and whistles stereotypically assigned to Brazilian footballers. His is a much more cutthroat style attacker with little time for aesthetics.
It is also very difficult for defenders to deal with given the explosiveness that futsal promotes, the way futsal players have to develop an incredibly keen wit on the ball, tempting opponents into fool moves and beguiling goalkeepers with a ‘desafinado’ (out of tune) tempo and finishes designed for a smaller, weightier orb than your standard issue Premier League football.
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