Searching for the Chinese Lionel Messi? Xi Jinping might want to follow the futsal model

Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar credit the indoor five-a-side game with developing their skills – China should embrace it if they want to reach their ambitious football aims

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 June, 2018, 2:27pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 June, 2018, 9:27pm

China might not be at the World Cup but their fans are there in great numbers, as are mainland companies, something that has brought Xi Jinping’s football dream into focus.

Though the men’s national team is yet to make it to another World Cup since their debut tournament in Japan and South Korea in 2002, China has set an ambitious target of competing at the highest level by 2050.

The foundation for these goals has been laid. Mads Davidsen, a coach at Chinese Super League side Shanghai SIPG, tweeted this week that there over 20,000 football academies up and running in China and that 10 million children are training every week.

That’s a huge undertaking and one that will surely pay dividends. But is China doing everything it can?

“Most of the major clubs in Brazil have a futsal school and then, at a certain age, the players choose which path they want to embark on,” Falcao told earlier this year.

This Falcao is the Brazilian futsal legend, rather than the Colombia striker Radamel Falcao, winner of over 200 caps for his country and two Futsal World Cups. Futsal of course is the Fifa sanctioned version of five-a-side football played with a weighted size 4 ball, most often indoors.

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The game is credited with developing some of the finest footballers, many of whom are showing their skills in Russia this summer.

“As a little boy in Argentina, I played futsal on the streets and for my club,” Lionel Messi told back when he was a 25-year-old with a mere three World Player of the Year honours to his name. “It was tremendous fun, and it really helped me become who I am today.”

His long-time rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, was also forged in futsal on the courts of Funchal in Madeira. “During my childhood in Portugal, all we played was futsal,” Ronaldo said in 2012. “The small playing area helped me improve my close control, and whenever I played futsal I felt free. If it wasn’t for futsal, I wouldn’t be the player I am today.”

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Uruguay and Barcelona star Luis Suarez, his current Barcelona teammate Phiippe Coutinho and former Camp Nou strike partner Neymar are three other stars gunning for the World Cup. They are also another three elite footballers that got their starts in futsal – Neymar even has his own global amateur futsal tournament.

The list of greats who developed through futsal is reason enough to introduce children to the short sided sport, or at least have them develop technique using the lower-bounce futsal ball, but futsal doesn’t have to solely provide a pathway to football.

Falcao toyed with 11-a-side, playing twice for Brazilian giants Sao Paulo in 2005, but he returned to the court – a decision he has said he has “no regrets” over.

His spiritual heir as the king of futsal, Portugal’s Ricardinho, abandoned his pursuit of a career in football aged 25 in 2011, having realised how much he had put into futsal.

Ricardinho won the Uefa Futsal Championship this year with Portugal and is the only player to have been named Best Player in the World five times.

China might not find its Messi but it could more realistically find a Falcao or Ricardinho – and potentially another path to Olympic glory.

Futsal will be present at the Youth Olympic Games in Argentina this October and there are long-standing hopes it might finally make its debut at the Paris Games in 2024.

Olympic acceptance is seen by many as the main hope for futsal’s growth and if it makes the Olympic programme then perhaps that will convince medal hungry China of its worth.

There are already moves to make the game bigger, just nothing on the scale of football’s ongoing development in China.

The Sina 5x5 Golden Futsal League is under way and taking place in 25 cities across China. Sports media giant Sina predict they will get over a billion weibo impressions and 300 million video views for the tournament, which will feature 3,200 teams battling it out for 1 million yuan in prize money, no doubt helped along by sponsors carmaker Dongfeng Fengshen and moped manufacturer Yadea.

The China national team finished third in their group at the AFC Futsal Championship earlier this year and Sergio Gargelli’s side came third again in their recent CFA International Futsal Tournament in Changsha, beating New Zealand.

There’s reason for hope: China are at 75 in Fifa’s football rankings but 68 on the unofficial futsal equivalent – not bad for a league that goes completely under the radar in contrast to football’s Chinese Super League.

China may have missed out on the last two Futsal World Cups in 2012 and 2016 but they have been to three of eight and hope to return in 2020.

That’s a lot better than their long-standing absence from the football World Cup, and if China could find time to have a futsal dream too then its football dream could be achieved much quicker.