Americans have marveled for years at the precise ball-handling and passing skills of international soccer legends such as Pele, Ronaldinho and Maradona.
They may not know those skills were honed indoors on basketball courts in a miniaturized version of soccer called futsal.
This five-on-five form of soccer has slowly made its way to the Tampa Bay area, with the Sports + Field athletic complex in Wesley Chapel introducing the game to kids ages 5-15 every Saturday morning.
Coached by former Tampa Bay Rowdie Mike Connell, futsal is derived from the Portuguese (futebol de salao) and Spanish (futbol de salon) games, both of which mean roughly large-room soccer. It's in those and other soccer hotbeds that futsal originated more than 70 years ago.
Its nuances serve as a primer to new and established players seeking to improve their skills.
"This is an advance from the American form of indoor soccer, where the indoor walls are used and the ball is constantly in play," said Connell, who started the informal games about a year ago. "This sport is bigger than outdoor soccer for youth in those international countries.
"This is where the skills, the passing, the movement and the confidence on the ball are heightened. The skills have improved tremendously with these kids, particularly the girls, because the ball is always at their feet."
Skills transfer outside
The ball is about two-thirds the size of a regular soccer ball. It's also denser and doesn't have the bounce of the outdoor ball, so it remains closer to the foot.
Connell said those skills are transferable to the outdoor game because players have more confidence on the ball and in their decisionmaking.
"This is a game whereby recognition of the field is paramount, which makes it easier playing outdoors on the bigger field," Connell said. "Players will take more chances outdoors after playing indoors because it helps them understand spacing on the field better."
Denys Hubbard, who grew up playing the game in Buffalo and now has two girls who play, agrees that futsal is a good introduction to soccer.
"You really need to know where your teammates are because the field is so much smaller and you have to think a move or a pass ahead," said Hubbard, who lives in Arbor Greene and coaches the Under-9 Comets outdoor team in New Tampa.
"Outdoors it's a much broader field. At the younger ages, the key is the foot skills and the ability to control the ball. If they don't get that, when you go to teach them the tactical stuff when they get older, it doesn't matter because they can't control the ball.
"If their mind is telling them to trap the ball and then pass it, if they can't trap it, what's the point? That's what this helps with. And it's great exercise because it's constant running for every kid out there."
Another benefit, coaches say, is that repeated touches on the ball produce a motion that, when transplanted outdoors with a high-bounce ball, translates into a firmer and longer pass appropriate for the big field.
Connell dates futsal's popularity to 1989, when FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) sanctioned the sport. Annual indoor World Cup tournaments followed, as well as a professional league in Kansas.
Today Connell is launching an eight-week league, which starts in July at Sports + Field.
"I'm hoping that when the outdoor season finishes in March, that futsal will become a league,'' he said. "You play a futsal season, and then you would play your outdoor season."