Manoel Tobias is one of the greatest players in futsal history
On his 50th birthday, he reflects on his glorious career
He also discusses training with Ronaldinho and Lithuania 2021
“I was like Cristiano Ronaldo is – I always had such desire to be the best I could possibly be and keep on winning,” said Manoel Tobias.
That insatiability is why, when the then 21-year-old boarded a flight from Hong Kong to Rio de Janeiro in November 1992, he didn’t bask in having helped Brazil conquer the FIFA Futsal World Cup™ and been named in the best right-winger in the competition, but set himself towering targets for the next edition of the competition – ones he fulfilled and then some.
On his 50th birthday, Manoel Tobias chats to FIFA.com about Hong Kong 1992 and Spain 1996, briefly swapping futsal for football to join reigning South American champions Gremio, training with Ronaldinho, Neymar’s potential on a court, Lithuania 2021 and the best futsal players of all time.
Manoel Tobias: Both. In 1986, I was on the books of Nautico Capibaribe – as a futsal player and a footballer. I was playing U-17 football and senior-level futsal. I wanted it to continue forever. But at the end of ’88 I had to make a decision and my heart was leaning more towards futsal.
My dream since I was a little kid was to represent my country at a big sporting tournament. I dreamed about this so many times. From the moment I decided to pursue futsal, I knew the World Cup was in a couple of years and I was dreaming about it. Here I was, 21 years old, on a flight to Hong Kong with all these hallowed players. I will never forget arriving at the airport in Hong Kong. We weren’t used to the spotlight, but there were the FIFA signs, so many photographers. I felt right then I was at a FIFA tournament – it simply doesn’t happen to a kid from a little city like Salgueiro. It was the realisation of a huge dream. And I wasn’t just there but a starter over so many amazing players.
I remember we played Holland in the last match of the second round – whoever won went through to the semi-finals – and we heard Pele would be there. It was my dream to meet Pele. We were all desperate for him to come into the dressing room, but he didn’t. I was really upset. But then we went out on to the court and there he was, Pele, up in the tribune. We put in one of our best performances, won 6-1, and I scored two goals. When I scored my second, I looked up towards Pele and dedicated my goal to him. Pele waved his congratulations to me. What a moment!
That performance in front of Pele gave us a lot of confidence. We then beat two very good sides, Spain and USA, in the semi-finals and final. USA had drawn with us in the [second] group, but we beat them 4-1. There were almost 20,000 people inside the coliseum. The sensation at the final whistle was indescribable. I remember when I was a little boy and I got my first football – it was the best thing in the world, such an unforgettable feeling. Holding the trophy was like that.
I remember we went to a winners’ banquet and I was elected the best right-winger at the tournament and Jorginho was elected the best player. I was very happy for him. The flight home was about 30 hours. I had a lot of time to think and I set myself some targets. One, to be at the next FIFA Futsal World Cup in four years, which wasn’t easy with so many great Brazilian players. Two, to help Brazil defend their title. And three, to be crowned the competition’s best player. I already worked extremely hard in training, but I said to myself that I was going to work even harder to achieve my targets.
It was extremely difficult. Our opponents had evolved a lot. We only had four players – me, Fininho, Vander, Serginho – from the 1992 squad. And we were the villains. Futsal was already really big in Spain, everyone one was saying it would be Spain’s tournament, and they all knew we were there to try and be the party poopers. We played Belgium, the whole crowd fiercely cheering for Belgium. Uruguay, same story. We had to play eight games with five-, seven-, ten-thousand people against us, and we beat an excellent Spain side, with Pato and a wonderful coach in Javier Lozano, 6-4 in Barcelona in the final. It was a huge achievement. If we were anything short of an absolutely outstanding side, Spain would have won that tournament.
On a personal level, I kept thinking about the targets I’d set myself on the flights back from Hong Kong. I fulfilled all three and as well as being named the World Cup’s best player, I was the top assister and top goalscorer. All this was down to my will. I always wanted to improve and improve and be the best possible version of myself. I was like Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi are now – always pushing myself to be as good as I could possibly be.
I want to make this clear: I’m not discrediting other great sides. The Spanish team with Daniel, Kike, Javi Rodriguez was outstanding. The Brazilian team with Schumacher, Falcao, Vinicius likewise. But the Brazil team of ’96 played more flowing futsal and we produced plays that teams still imitate today. It was like the Brazil team of ’70 – Pele, Jairzinho, Tostao. Teams still imitate the plays they pulled off today. We were ahead of our time.
At the end of ’95, there was a push to create a national league. Beforehand, we only played short-format tournaments. They decided there needed to be financial fair play, so each team would have a salary cap like in American sports, so Enxuta told me they would have to reduce my salary – by a lot. I’d had a lot of offers from Spanish clubs over the years, but every time they offered me more money, the Brazilian club I was at would match it. But this time Boomerang Interviu were offering me double what I had been on at Enxuta. There was a thing at the time, ‘Whoever plays abroad won’t be picked by the Seleção’, so I was really sad that I would have to leave but I’d pretty much decided on it.
Then the Gremio president got in contact with me and made me an offer. I was honoured, but I told them ‘no’ because I knew it would have been really difficult for me to adapt. I’d played futsal professionally for six, seven years. That was it for me. Then two days later I picked up the telephone and it was Luiz Felipe Scolari! I thought, ‘For Felipão to be ringing me, they must really think I can make it on a big pitch. Can I really?’ I didn’t want to leave futsal, though, so I asked them to multiply what I was earning at Enxuta – and I had been earning really good money – by four so they've think, 'Who is this madman?’ and that would be the end of it. But they said ‘Ok’. I was stunned.
I spent four months at Gremio. It was an incredible experience. I found it really difficult to adapt, but after two to three months I started getting to grips with it. I managed to put in a few good performances. It was great to be playing with such great players and in training, we played against the youth players like Tinga, Rodrigo Gral and some kid – I don’t know if you’ve heard of him – called Ronaldinho Gaucho. Wow!
In March of ’96, just before the national league started, a futsal club found a way to match what I was earning at Gremio. The only problem was that it was their biggest rivals, Internacional. The next two days for me were hell, but in my heart I wanted to play futsal and I wanted to play at the World Cup that October. My return to futsal was really important for everybody. It was huge news in Brazil – ‘a futsal club has managed to lure Manoel Tobias from Gremio’ – and because I was earning more, the clubs started paying the other players more too. Inter beat Barcelona in the final of the first world club championship, and I went to the World Cup and realised my dreams. If I’d gone to Spain instead of Gremio, who knows what would have happened?
If I’d have stuck with football in ’88, I’m almost certain I would have become a great player. But six, seven years out… it’s huge. Do you think if you put Neymar on the futsal court today he’d be as good as Ferrao, as Ricardinho? He simply wouldn’t be. And I’ve given you the footballer who would be the best at futsal. If Neymar had continued with futsal he would be hands down the best futsal player in the world today. Another player who would have been an amazing futsal player is Juninho Pernambucano. We were both from Recife and we both had the same choice between futsal and football. He chose football and I chose futsal.
They’re maybe not as talented as other generations, but they’re winners. They work really hard, play really well as a team. They have Ferrao. Marquinhos Xavier is an outstanding coach and he’s done a great job. I think they’re a really strong team going into the World Cup.
I keep hearing that Argentina got lucky at the last World Cup. What? They’re a magnificent team. I don’t know if they’ll win it again, but they’ll be in the last four. I think it’s between Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Portugal.
Ferrao’s the best player in the world today. He is a monster.
(laughs) The guy you’re talking to right now. I’m not going to use false modesty – I think I’m the greatest player of all time. Why? Because Manoel Tobias could attack and defend, create goals and score goals. Sorry, but it would be hypocritical for me not to say this, because I firmly believe I am the greatest. Manoel Tobias first, Falcao second, Ricardinho third. Jorginho was an unbelievable player too.