Football craze passes the test
It was once suggested that Scottish football's insular nature was so extreme that some regarded Pele merely as a black Denis Law. That attitude has long gone with Scotland having tumbled so dramatically in the world rankings.
Now, unlikely as it may seem, schoolchildren are getting the chance to sample the soccer samba and play like the Brazilians. Towerbank, South Morningside, Parsons Green and Abbeyhill primaries in Edinburgh are playing futebol de salio (football of the hall) under coaching from Brazilian Soccer Schools.
This fast paced five-a-side game is played on a hard pitch about the size of a basketball court with a smaller, size two, football that is weighted to reduce bounce. This encourages players to use their football skills, pass the ball more and be quick on their feet.
The game is similar to futsal, the FIFA and UEFA recognised form of five-a-side football that is played with a size four ball, similarly weighted.
The game, which is aimed at 5-to 16-year-olds, originated in Brazil and is credited with helping to nurture the skills of many of the great Brazilian footballers, including Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. Even Socrates, who played so memorably with Brazil in the 1980s, has visited Towerbank Primary to endorse the coaching methods.
Futebol de salio was brought to Europe by Simon Clifford, a former primary teacher in Leeds, who learned of it after striking up a friendship with Middlesbrough's Brazilian international Juninho, who now plays for Celtic.
He went to Brazil and studied how youngsters learned the game.
Eight years on, it is estimated that 150,000 youngsters have played futebol de salio in Britain, Lego has put a six-figure sum into supporting the framework, and Mr Clifford has bought an English Northern Counties East League team, Garforth Town, to use as a breeding ground for elite players.
However, futebol de salio is still in its infancy in Scotland, with eight coaches across the country and an estimated 2,500 children having sampled it.
Bryan Robertson took up the franchise for coaching the game in Edinburgh and East Lothian in October and has already held lessons for 300 children aged 5 to 12. Having coached children for 10 years and worked as a part-time community coach for Hearts for six years, he is a convert.
All the coaches have Scottish Football Association coaching certificates at the minimum of level two but have to be at level three within three months.
There will be a national futebol de salio cup with regional qualifiers for boys and girls taking place in Edinburgh on April 23 and 30 respectively.
"I have had a tremendous response from children who like the idea of developing a new skill," Mr Robertson says. "Young children can learn more from four training sessions than they can from four organised matches, as they get more touches on the ball and can work on their skills.
"Children are still playing too many games in that the best ones are playing for their schools and also their boys' clubs and their regional team.
"The SFA has done a good job in recent years of trying to cut down the number of games that youngsters play and we are taking it a stage further."
He is holding Easter coaching schools in Edinburgh and East Lothian (pound;34 for a four-day course and pound;40 for a five-day course with a futebol de salio ball provided).
"The weighted ball means that children cannot take the easy option during a game of kicking it in the air but have to use skill to get past an opponent.
"I am no Roberto Carlos, but when the children see that I can execute the skills, they are keen to try them.
"We give each skill the name of a Brazilian player so that children can go home and say they can do something they saw Ronaldo, for example, do on television.
"It is a myth that Brazilians are born with these skills. They simply work harder at developing them. Every skill can be broken down and taught.
Mr Robertson is keen to point out it is not a case of producing players for the top level of the game. "We're not just trying to produce elite players.
It's about getting youngsters involved in football and in fitness," he says.
"It's not about producing winners, it's about improving a player no matter what standard they are at. Too often it is about winning at an early age, when it should be about learning.
"We're working at grassroots level. At the end of it all, if a good player wants to sign for Manchester United, we're not going to stand in his way.
There are already players from Brazilian Soccer Schools who have signed for Celtic, Darlington and Sheffield Wednesday."
BSS has a skills badge programme in CD-Rom format aimed specifically at games teachers interested in encouraging pupils (see www.icfds.com).
There is also a pre-school programme. Socatots starts work on basic soccer skills for children as young as 2 through developing motor skills using bean bags.
Yet futebol de salio, for all the inroads it has made, is not affiliated to any national football governing body in Scotland.
John Watson, general secretary of the Scottish Schools' Football Association, says: "The Scottish Football Association did promote futsal for a while and some schools expressed an interest but there was a problem with equipment.
"I think it is a good idea for schools, as they are looking for an alternative to play indoors, and school gyms are ideal for the game.
"But it would need a concerted effort by the SFA community officers and I can't see that happening now. When you promote something like this, you run the risk that it becomes more popular than the 11-a-side game and I don't think that would be in the SFA's interest."