For decades now, futsal has been a popular and much-loved sporting discipline, especially in South America and southern Europe. And while the indoor version of football is rapidly growing in popularity elsewhere now, thanks to FIFA's patronage and the support of many leading personalities, it is in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Spain and Portugal that futsal has proved a breeding ground for some of the greats of the game.
The list is topped by Lionel Messi. The three-time FIFA World Player of the Year and Barcelona's all-time leading scorer took his first tentative steps with a ball in the colours of Newell's Old Boys, although he played futsal rather than football.
“As a little boy in Argentina, I played futsal on the streets and for my club. It was tremendous fun, and it really helped me become who I am today," said the 25-year-old, reflecting on the benefits of the five-a-side version of the game.
Pele and Co convinced by futsal
Messi is by no means the only superstar with futsal roots. Apart from the Argentinian wizard, the likes of Pele, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi and Ronaldo learned the trade in the sports hall.
Cristiano Ronaldo honed his natural ability by playing futsal. “During my childhood in Portugal, all we played was futsal," he said. "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."
World and European champion Xavi revealed his love of futsal to UEFA.com, citing one reason in particular: “In futsal, you see whether a player is really talented. In normal football you don't necessarily identify talent as easily because it's so much more physical. But with futsal, you notice the small details in quality, class and tactical understanding."
The pool of talent produced by futsal is at its biggest in Brazil. Footballing icon Pele played the indoor game himself: “Futsal requires you to think and play fast. It makes everything easier when you later switch to football."
Ronaldinho, Juninho, Robinho and rising star Neymar are other notable futsal products of the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ host nation. Arguably the most famous former Seleção icon is Ronaldo, the all-time leading scorer at the FIFA World Cup finals. The striker took up futsal at the age of 12 and has fond memories of the period.
“I needed extremely good feet, because you're always attempting to beat opponents in the minimum of space. I loved the challenge of playing on such a small pitch," recalled the former player, a member of the management board of the Local Organising Committee for the 2014 tournament.
An emerging force
The indoor discipline’s explosive growth in recent years is well illustrated by statements from two leading pros operating in the English Premier League and the German Bundesliga.
Micah Richards, capped 13 times by England to date, used futsal to work on his ball control. “I improved my technique by playing futsal. It helps you remain more composed on the ball," the Manchester City right-back told BBC Sport.
And according to Germany U-21 national team captain Lewis Holtby, who also has two senior caps to his name, futsal is the best way of learning the game. “Young players in particular can learn a huge amount from futsal," the Schalke midfielder said in a German FA (DFB) interview. "The heavy ball means it’s in play for longer. Passing moves and interchanges more often end with a goalscoring chance."
For the future, it is a cast-iron certainty that the fertile ground provided by futsal will produce a host of the biggest names of tomorrow.