Teacher finds Brazil's soccer secret in the slums

Jon Culley examines a claim that Latin skills grow from playing with a non-bouncing ball
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The Independent Online
THE future of British football may lie with a small group of primary school boys hoofing an undersized, overweight football around a sports centre playground.

Every four years, when the World Cup finals come around, the same question taxes the minds of football followers everywhere, but especially in England, the game's spiritual home: just why, when so much of the sport's enormous wealth is shared among a few rich Europeans, does a relatively poor nation from South America so often produce the best team?

More than 100 years after Charles Miller, an English railway worker, organised a league in Sao Paolo and unwittingly launched Brazil on their path to global dominance, another unlikely pioneer believes he may have discovered their secret.

Simon Clifford, a primary school teacher from Leeds, spent six weeks in Brazil last summer - financed by an pounds 8,000 bank loan - and confirmed a long-held suspicion: compared with football as we know it, they really do play a different game.

Futebol de salao is a type of football, but takes place on a pitch no larger than a basketball court, and uses a small, heavy ball that does not bounce. The great luminaries of Brazilian teams down the years, from Pele via Zico to the recent Premiership star, Juninho, insist that it is this game that equipped them to become masters of the real thing.

"It is because the ball is heavy and cannot just be booted from one end of the pitch to the other that the emphasis shifts to player movement and close control," Mr Clifford said. "Children are brought up playing futebol de salao and everyone I spoke with, including Pele, Rivelino, Careca and Zico, believes it is how Brazilian players acquire their mastery of the ball."

His expedition was the subject of a television programme shown in the BBC North region last month and there are plans for a network slot in June, just before the World Cup finals begin. Mr Clifford, meanwhile, has established the English Confederation of Futebol de Salao and set up four specialist coaching schools with plans for 20 more. A longtime admirer of Brazilian skills, Middlesbrough fan Mr Clifford began his quest after a chance meeting with Juninho's father.

"Juninho's family came with him to Teesside to help him settle and, by chance, his father's seat at the stadium was in the row behind mine. We chatted, I told him of my passion for Brazilian football and he invited me to their home.

"Juninho and I became friends. He told me how players develop their skills in Brazil and I suggested we write a book together, for which a visit to Brazil seemed essential."

A large part of the visit was spent in Sao Paolo, Juninho's home city, where Mr Clifford learned of the origins of futebol de salao.

"In the early part of the century there was a wave of enthusiasm for futebol de campo, the full-scale game," he said. "But in urban areas there was very little space in which to play. Instead the game was played on handball courts, using the heavy handball balls. This became futebol de salao - "football of the hall".

Mr Clifford's ambition is to see every child in England own a futebol de salao ball. He sees it as a potential revolution, although it is one he may have to pursue without the backing of the football authorities. Although Howard Wilkinson, who as the Football Association's technical director is responsible for the development of the game, is reported to have endorsed futebol de salao, he views its potential benefits with less enthusiasm than Mr Clifford.

"It is a super game that kids will enjoy playing and anything that encourages them to play has to be welcomed," he said. "We have looked at Brazilian methods before, just as the Germans, the Dutch, the Spanish and the Italians have looked at them.

"You have to be aware that many Brazilians play football in what we would consider to be very primitive, even dangerous situations, with poor equipment.

"A place like Sao Paolo is an urban sprawl the likes of which we never see here. There are millions of people, many living in virtual shanty towns. They play football where they can and how they can. But there are many games, dozens of games, that all undoubtedly play their part.

"Playing with a ball that does not bounce is no different from the kind of football people of my generation used to play in the street with a ball that had burst.

"At the end of the day, you have to play on a full-size pitch with a ball that bounces."