Commentary

DeCock: Futsal kids get helping kick from Barcelona

ldecock@newsobserver.comJuly 14, 2014 

  • WHAT IS FUTSAL?

    A five-a-side version of soccer played predominantly indoors on hard courts, the name futsal comes from a combination of “futbol” and “salao,” the Portuguese word for “salon” — essentially, indoor soccer, but without the hockey-style walls as it is often played here.

    The ball is smaller and heavier to allow for more control and the action moves at a fast pace more akin to basketball than soccer. Because of the frequency of touches and the close quarters inherent to the game, the popularity of futsal in Spain, Brazil and Argentina has been identified as one reason for the growing technical superiority of soccer players from those countries.

    U.S. National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann and technical director Claudio Reyna have urged more of an emphasis on futsal as a part of youth development in hopes of improving the skills of American players from a young age.

    LUKE DeCOCK

— In his Catalan-inflected English, Andreu Plaza gently corrected a pair of 8-year-old boys who were struggling with a basic stretching drill. This kind of elementary stuff isn’t what Plaza usually does. He’s used to honing the skills of some of the best futsal players on the planet. The culture shock of coming to the United States from Spain was minor in comparison.

For these kids, though, that only underlines how special an opportunity this is. Plaza, 55, coaches FC Barcelona’s ‘B’ futsal team and oversees the massive club’s youth academy but is spending the summer at SportHQ in Cary along with four of his teenage players. It’s a rare chance for local players to learn from the very best in the game of futsal.

“It’s very difficult to compare with Barcelona,” Plaza said, through an interpreter. “We’re talking about the best, top players in this sport. In futsal, it’s the best club in the world. So the level, you can’t compare. It’s so different.”

Futsal, the five-a-side version of soccer played indoors on a hard court, is hot right now. Its most vocal devotees credit it for the technical superiority of soccer players from futsal-heavy countries like Spain, Argentina and Brazil. The fast pace and smaller teams allow each player more touches on the ball than traditional soccer, in theory helping develop creativity, skill and guile that translate to the larger game.

SportHQ, with its dedicated court and training facilities, is among the best American venues for it. So when USA Futsal, an advocacy group based in Cary that hosts a major youth tournament in Barcelona, wanted to bring over some expert coaches and players, this was a natural fit.

A great soccer club

So that’s how Plaza and his four protégés, aged 13-17, ended up teaching six weeks of futsal camps at SportHQ before they head to Orlando in August and join their teammates for the World Futsal Championships, an international age-group tournament.

“I want to be a coach, and it’s great being able to watch their training sessions and the style they play, how much faster it is, to take away some of the different activities they do,” said Ashley Clark, who is from Cary and plays soccer at Campbell.

FC Barcelona is best known for being one of the world’s great soccer clubs – one capable of spending $128 million to buy Luis Suarez from Liverpool – but it has a full futsal operation as well, of equal stature in that game, as well as basketball and handball programs.

Two of the visiting players are in Barcelona’s futsal academy. The other two come from Barcelona’s charitable foundation. All four were chosen for the trip as a reward for their grades and behavior.

“My trainer, he comes to me and say, in one month, maybe, if I want to go to United States to make the camp and different activities,” Barcelona player Andreas Eigenbauer said. “I said yes. It’s very different. I like the people, but it’s totally different from Spain.”

Eigenbauer is from Sabadell, about 12 miles outside Barcelona. He attends school at Barcelona’s academy and plays for one of Barcelona’s youth team. At 15, he’s essentially a part-time professional.

The depth of that training was apparent from the thick, comb-bound practice plan Plaza brought with him, covering every drill and session from start to finish, straight from Barcelona’s academy. He quickly had to revise those plans – the groups were much larger than he was used to working with, the skill level understandably lower.

Pilot program

The enthusiasm is there, and for the kids and coaches alike the experience has been eye-opening, particularly the skill of the teenaged Barcelona players. They step onto the court with a perceptible authority, then do magical things with the ball that can only be described as slight of foot. The Americans have a long way to go to catch up, although they have come a long way in three weeks.

“The evolution of the kids is very good,” Plaza said. “Out of everything, my most positive impression is they want to get better.”

This is a pilot program; if all goes well, the plan is to send Barcelona coaches and players all over the United States, exposing American players to first-class coaching and training and exposing the young Barcelona players to American life. The four Barcelona kids are living with host families, immersed in the experience, right down to the 4th of July fireworks.

“This is the first summer of this, and SportHQ is the first one,” USA Futsal president Rob Andrews said. “It’s got the only hardwood floor that’s official in the country. As far as quality is concerned, if we need to show them something in the country, we come here.”

Only one of the players speaks English, but futsal is a universal language. Wednesday nights, after the camps were done for the day, Plaza and a few camp counselors took on the four Barcelona players in an informal scrimmage.

“You get to see what it’s really about,” said Ralph Vaughn, 29, a counselor at the camp and a former college soccer player. “I don’t really have that much futsal under my belt. Luckily I have years of soccer so it can kind of translate, but some of the stuff that they do is pretty amazing. You can see what we’re trying to get to. And they’re young. And for them to be as young as they are, it really hits home.”

The coaches won. Or so everyone said, in two different languages.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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