When Jadon Sancho made his England debut in a 0-0 draw with Croatia last October, the event was significant for more than one reason.
It was widely reported at the time that the Borussia Dortmund winger was the first player born this millennium to represent the Three Lions at senior level. That was not the only notable thing about his maiden appearance, however: by coming on as a 78th-minute substitute in Rijeka, Sancho also became the nation’s first international to have regularly played futsal in his developmental years.
Naturally, the former Manchester City protégé also played football as a youngster, so the small-sided indoor game cannot lay claim to all of his fleet-footed talents. However, participating in a sport which focuses on technical ability, quick thinking and improvised skills clearly did not do Sancho any harm. Just one glance at his mesmeric hips shimmying from one side to the next shows how the teenager could bamboozle an opponent on a small court just as easily as on a grass pitch.
“What he brings to the table are ball skills,” Dan Micciche, the manager of Arsenal’s Under-16s, told the Guardian last year.
“Being able to play out of tight areas in a way where he can beat a player rather than having to pass in and he can do that a variety of ways. He can run with ball at speed and go both sides. Even though he’s right-footed, when he’s dribbling at people on that left side, he can actually go inside or outside and that makes him very difficult to defend against.
“At the very youngest age groups – nine, 10, 11 – it tends to be one-versus-one attacking skills, four-versus-four, five-versus-five futsal. Then at 12, 13, 14, we stick them on bigger pitches, 11 versus 11, and it becomes about team shape and winning.”
Futsal may still be in its infancy in England, but it’s been popular overseas for a long while – particularly among some of the planet’s leading football nations. Indeed, Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Cristiano Ronaldo all played futsal while growing up, and the sport is seen as a crucial part of a young player’s growth in countries like Spain and Brazil. The ability to come up with moments of breathtaking ingenuity – Ronaldinho’s toe poke against Chelsea in 2005, for instance – is often developed on the court.
England’s conquerors at Euro 2016 also used futsal techniques to create history, even if Iceland’s talents weren’t sugar-coated with the same Samba brilliance as Ronaldinho’s. Instead, the Nordic islanders improved their pressing skills thanks in large part to their national futsal programme.
While futsal isn’t mandatory for nations to achieve global football success – see Germany’s 2014 World Cup winners – there’s a school of thought that modern-day achievement on the international stage is strongly linked to it. Just look at the top of FIFA’s world rankings for the two sports: the top five futsal nations went deep in last summer’s football World Cup in Russia.
It’s also something that the Football Association have cottoned on to in recent times. With England’s national futsal side ranking 47th in the world, lagging behind the likes of Vietnam, Soloman Islands and Kuwait, the governing body decided it was time to act.
In January 2017, Michael Skubala was appointed as England’s new futsal head coach and elite performance manager – the first full-time futsal employee in FA history – and he’s been working to raise the game’s profile ever since. In September he was part of the team that launched the FA’s six-year strategy, which aims to increase participation to 150,000, help the men’s side get into the world’s top 20 and launch a women’s national team before 2024.
Those are lofty ambitions, particularly as comparatively few sports facilities offer futsal as an option and awareness of the game among football fans remains low – although BBC Red Button coverage of recent internationals may start to change that. Encouraging more junior sides and professional youth set-ups to add futsal to their training regimes will also help.
Sancho’s rise shows that playing futsal as a youngster can help hone raw talent, and there are examples of the sport aiding others further down the ladder too. In August, Maidenhead left-back Max Kilman swapped the National League for the Premier League; after joining Wolves, he paid homage to the impact futsal had on his development.
“Futsal helps with football quite a lot,” Kilman told The Set Pieces shortly after his transfer. “Everybody thinks it’s all about making you better controlling the ball, but it’s about being more aware, more comfortable on the ball and making better decisions.
“It helps because it’s really fast and the area is much smaller. So, when I came back to football, I was more confident to get the ball from throw-ins, in more tight areas and I felt like I had way more space when I get on a bigger pitch again.
“The main thing for England is to get children playing at a younger age so they can be better on the ball and make better decisions. It’s very difficult to say what England needs to do, but the kids in Brazil and Spain are playing it as their first sport, [before] making a decision as teenagers to make the transition to football or stick with it.
“It’s always difficult over here because every time you look on the internet or social media, you always see football highlights and very rarely futsal. And for 10 or 11-year-olds, it’d be good to be promoting more futsal pages with clips of nice goals or tricks. It’s weird because futsal is more exciting than football; in futsal, each team makes about 30 chances a game at least, whereas in football you might only see one shot on target for the whole half.”
Progress is already being made at grassroots level. The focus on professional clubs may still be limited, but futsal hubs have begun appearing in schools, colleges and youth football facilities across the country.
The fully furbished courts, which are funded by £300,000 worth of Football Foundation grants, are part of the FA’s plan to give thousands of youngsters the chance to try the sport for the first time.
If that project starts to gain some momentum, then the FA could soon hit their targets – both on the court and on the pitch. And with it, there could be plenty more Sanchos to get the nation’s fans off their feet.