One Of Us Speaks – Another Green World
Summer in Spanish cities can be unbearable. All across the country, apart from in the very north and northwest, the heat is stifling, and intensified by the fabric of the city. Most people live in the newer districts, which are dominated by high-rise apartment blocks exposed to the brutal sun, towering over noisy streets choked by traffic.
There’s little public space, save the odd playground or isolated square. It’s the upshot of decades of dubious urban planning and, very often, the insidious influence of developers on municipalities. In the 70s, 80s and even the 90s, shaded open space was barely a consideration.
At this time of the year you envy the old-town dwellers at the compact and dark core of the city in their ageing courtyards. Temperatures on these streets feel a few degrees lower thanks to the shade – the alleys here are narrow for this reason, and the centuries-old stonework gives the air a sanctified quality.
But it’s that grid system of hazy, baking concrete I want to talk about. Uncomfortable enough in the summer that, even as I watch my road in London break its banks again, I never pine for Spain in July.
My walk to and from the office would take me past an inner-city playground. Part of a proper barrio with a strong Latin-American flavour, where the unmistakable reggaeton beat thumped from boy-racers, and there was a pleasing continental aroma of cortados and stale tobacco that wafted from the cafe on the corner. It could be quite an intimidating place, but the kids didn’t come here to waste time; they came to play football.
It never looked very appealling to me. After a few minutes a brand new ball would start to get scoured by the surface. Any kind of spill or slip meant blood. The boisterous spectators, wire cage and sunken pitch gave it all a bit of a forbidding Mad Max at the Thunderdome quality. The other reason I never felt like joining in was because these lads were scarily good.
Slowly I’ve got the vague idea that it was in this imperfect urban environment that the momentum for football’s next big step gathered – where there’s intense passion for football, community spirit and an urge to gather in public, but hardly a grass pitch to be found. Technique and awareness flourishes here.
Teams at all levels trust in an individual’s control. A clean first touch is everything. Patience goes a long way, especially between May and October. The heat makes you more efficient, more economical in your exertions. Diving into tackles is not an option – the same goes for any kind of action that will end with part of your anatomy, aside from your feet, making contact with the unpleasant playing surface.
You start to understand why Futsal does so well. It’s played throughout southern Europe and South America. It arrived in Spanish cities in the early 70s as the cities swelled. Courts are found at local sports centres, or Polideportivos, which in many places offer the only delineated and maintained environment for a game of football. They’re away from the sun and a hell of a lot cheaper to use than the UK equivalent.
Where I live in London there are acres of lush grass pitches ten minutes on foot. I can’t think of an area in the city, apart from maybe W1 that isn’t a few minutes’ walk from the nearest set of goals. Because of the climate, almost all surfaces available are artificial in Spain. You start to wonder if grass is the problem.
My local pitches are verdant but inconsistent. Even during the season the grass is overgrown, and the roll of the ball is hampered by tufts and diverted by bobbles.
In many Spanish cities the Futsal court is what they’ve got. They play on a smooth surface with a size four ball that rewards only the deftest touch. Adults trap the ball with their soles and roll it forward like school kids do with a tennis ball on their lunch break. The goals are narrower than what you’ll get at an indoor or 5-a-side football pitch in the UK, making shots from distance just a hopeful punt.
I’m aware that there are plenty of factors that go into a footballer’s development, but one thing’s for sure – the generation raised on Futsal has taken over. Two of the best players from the last 20 years, Messi and the Brazilian Ronaldo, first turned heads on the Futsal court. Much of the Spain team was brought up on this type of football, and when you watch a Futsal match you can see the similarities.
In England the most recognised form of the sport is played on poorly maintained public grass pitches that forgive deficiencies and give the cloggers time to get their challenges in. You could even take that idea up a few rungs:
Sure, it would take a long time to see a difference, and the improvement might well be negligible, but I reckon the simplest way to raise the standard of football in this country would be to encourage teams at all levels to train and play on grass cut as close as possible to 1cm in length. More important than stadium capacity, in the Premier League the Desso GrassMaster surface or equivalent hybrid surface should be compulsory.
In one of the Clásicos two seasons ago, Real Madrid opted to leave the grass in the Bernabéu at three centimetres as part of their plan to contain Barcelona, and it caused uproar. Xavi went to the press – he wasn’t having any of it. To him, those two centimetres only suited the team that didn’t want to play.
But then he never had to go to Stoke, or Sunderland, or Wigan after a Rugby League match. When Arsène talks about pitches in England it draws sneers from the press and frustration from the fans. Of course he wants an advantage for his team, on turf that rewards technical players and shuns the cloggers. But in the end, isn’t that what everyone else wants?