France '98: A Lesson Born In Brazil

Jon Culley reports on a British teacher who travelled afar to discover the real origins of the beautiful game
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EVERY four years, when the World Cup finals come around, the same question taxes the mind. Just why, when so much of football's enormous wealth is shared among a few rich Europeans, does a relatively poor South American nation frequently produce the best team?

This summer in France, Brazil attempt to win the World Cup for a fifth time, a record with which only those of three-times champions Italy and Germany stand comparison. However, more than 100 years after Charles Miller, an emigrant English railway worker, organised a league in Sao Paolo and thus unwittingly launched Brazil on the path to global dominance, another unlikely pioneer believes he has hit upon their secret. And he is determined it will become the key to England's success in the future.

Simon Clifford, a teacher and youth coach from Leeds, spent six weeks in Brazil last summer and returned with confirmation of 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 through to Zico to Romario and Ronaldo, 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," Clifford said. "Children are brought up playing Futebol de Salao in school and everyone I spoke with, including Pele, Rivelino, Careca and Zico, believes it is how Brazilian players acquire their mastery of the ball."

Dismissive of the notion that South American players are somehow born better than our own, Clifford believes English players can grow up to be every bit as skilful. Since his trip to Brazil was featured in two television documentaries, he has been almost overwhelmed in the rush of schools, sports centres and football clubs wanting to know more about the game.

The UK Confederation of Futebol de Salao, which Clifford set up, already has a mailing list of 42,000 and has registered 20,000 schools and colleges as members. It has 15 coaching centres of its own around the country with plans to open five more this month. Clifford is giving up teaching to run his organisation full-time.

"I've no illusion that it is the be-all and end-all for producing great English players," Clifford said. "But I've had a fantastic response from almost everyone who has seen the game and I'd just like it to make some impact on improving technique."

Despite the gathering momentum, official support for Futebol de Salao is muted. Howard Wilkinson, the Football Association's technical director, views its potential benefits with somewhat less enthusiasm than Clifford. "We have looked at Brazilian methods before, just as the Germans, the Dutch, the Spanish and the Italians have looked at them," Wilkinson said. "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. But, at the end of the day, you have to play on a full-size pitch with a ball that bounces."

The Brazilians, he might have noticed, are pretty good at that as well.