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Football but not quite as we know it

It's fun, it's fast and it's for all. Futsal, a five-a-side version of football which will become an Olympic sport in 2006, is being introduced to the UK by the Scots. Roddy Mackenzie reports.

The game that helped the great Argentinian footballer Maradona to hone his soccer techniques is set to sweep through Scotland. The Scottish Football Association is promoting futsal, a five-a-side game which can be played indoors or out, and schools are seen as an ideal ground to teach the rudiments.

Futsal, which originated in Uruguay in the 1930s, is played with a special size four, low bounce ball, which makes it easier to control, and there is a defined pitch, so walls cannot be used by players. The goalposts are more like handball posts than traditional five-a-side football goals.

Damien Knabben, coach of the Belgian national futsal team and an instructor for the international governing body FIFA, recently led a clinic at Hampden Park in Glasgow for SFA community coaches and outlined the game for the Scottish Schools Football Association. Scotland is the first of the UK nations to embrace it.

Mr Knabben's enthusiasm for futsal is evident. He feels the game is ideal for schoolchildren in that it grounds them in the four major criteria of sport: physical, technical, tactical and mental.

"When there are so many players in such a small space, they need to be intelligent as they need to find the right solution, not in one or two seconds as in football but in a tenth of a second because two metres is a lot of space in futsal," Mr Knabben says.

"Speed in futsal is very important; not just to be quick but to think quickly. You need more intelligence to play futsal at a high level than football at a high level. For kids, they have to learn to make good decisions as soon as they start. We start kids at primary schools."

It is important for schools to realise that they do not need a big field, just a small hall, he says. "Many schools these days do not have a lot of space and that's why futsal can be better than football." Nor does any lack of specialised equipment need to stand in anyone's way. "If you want to play it in primary schools, the equipment doesn't matter so much.

"It doesn't have to be as international rules say. Let them play three against three or six against six, whatever," he continues. "If schools do not have goals, just use cones. Don't make problems about equipment."

People play futsal on Copacabana beach, he says.

"The smaller the ball, the better the technique. It doesn't matter what kind of ball they have, especially for very young children."

The important thing is that they have fun; if they have fun they will play again.

"Anybody can play futsal," says Mr Knabben. "Some very small players play in national teams because they are very quick. Smaller kids can play with bigger kids and physique is not a big advantage. You don't have a lot of contact and you do not have bad injuries."

The SFA has advocated small-sided soccer in recent years and seven-a-side football, based on the Dutch model, has been very successful. The competitive element has been secondary to developing skills and Mr Knabben emphasises that futsal is no different.

"The children will know at the end who won the game. We don't make a ranking; the result is not important at a young age. In Belgium, until the age of 10 there is no winner or loser," he explains.

Mr Knabben believes the educational element of futsal will make it a winner in schools. "The game teaches children strategy and decision-making and how to work as a team. In 11-a-side football, maybe two or three good individual players can make a difference to a schools match. In futsal, every player needs to work as part of a team and play a part in defence and attack. Players are not classified by positions. And I think it is important for children to learn these aspects for life."

Whether futsal is a sport in itself - there are world championships and the SFA may award caps if it becomes very popular - or whether it is viewed as a game ideally suited for children to nurture their soccer skills for 11-a-side football is a matter of debate.

In Brazil, most soccer players are reared on futsal and stars such as Ronaldo and Romario grew up playing it. However, Mr Knabben concedes that players may need to make the choice whether to pursue a futsal or a football career by the time they are 15 or 16. The rewards for the 11-a-side game are much greater at present but Mr Knabben points out that Brazil's top futsal player, Manoel Tobias, commands more than pound;1 million a year.

There are professional futsal leagues in Spain and Italy and semi-professionals in Belgium, where crowds of 7,000 are commonplace. The first FIFA world championships were held in 1989. Spain are the current champions, having upset Brazil 4-3 in the final in Brazil. And futsal will become a winter Olympic sport in 2006.

Scotland is a long way off competing at that level, but Perth now has local leagues and the rest of the country is set to catch up as the community coaches spread the word in schools and clubs.

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