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Commentary Jan 24, 2014

Organized Chaos: The key to Brazil’s soccer success, Part 2

By Kika Toulouse

kikaTOULOUSESo, in my last blog I left you all with an elaborate description of an almost charmingly decrepit soccer field located in my neighborhood of Cotia in São Paulo, Brazil. By the end of the blog I had presented this field as a metaphor for Brazilian soccer culture and theorized that the chaotic yet sufficiently organized state of this culture is one of the reasons why Brazil has become the soccer powerhouse that it is today.

Still with me? Great, thanks for hanging in there. Let me provide you with some first-hand examples that will hopefully make my point a little clearer.

To my surprise and ultimately to my benefit as a footballer, my team in Cotia trained in futsal as well as soccer. To anyone who is unfamiliar with futsal, it is essentially soccer on a smaller scale. If you understand the basics of soccer you pretty much understand the basics of futsal: use your feet, try to score a goal, no hands allowed.

The two major differences in futsal are that each team plays with five players (including a goalkeeper) and the game is played with a smaller, weighted ball. There are also quite a number of different rules (my personal favorite being no offside, least favorite being no slide tackles) but, I’m sure to your relief, I will not be covering them in this piece.

When my team had futsal training I often arrived at practice early and would sit on the bleachers and watch whatever form of football was being played on the vacant futsal courts. The most common spectacle was a large group of boys ranging from the ages of about eight to 18 playing pickup soccer or futsal, depending on whichever type of ball was available that day. The variety in age of these boys was equally matched by the variety in footwear (or lack thereof). Some boys’ shoes were old and worn down to the sole, others had the luxury of sporting the latest pair of Nikes. A fair number of boys even played barefoot.

I watched firsthand as the younger boys continuously got outrun, outmuscled and outplayed by boys who were simply physically superior to them. But for these kids it was either play with the big boys or watch from the sidelines. As one would expect when a group of primarily pre-pubescent, hormonally unstable boys gather to play a competitive sport…petty fights ensued.

I witnessed everything from harmless smack talk to full-blown physical confrontations. These were quite regular occurrences but however high a dispute would escalate, the issue was always resolved among the players.

This brings me back to my theory, and how having the minimum amount of structure necessary to control chaos is what contributes to Brazil’s ability to continuously create elite soccer players. Because most kids in Brazil lack the opportunity or oftentimes the money to play on an organized team, they resort to pickup games on the street or at local fields. Free of the limitations that would be imposed on them by an organization, these kids learn the game in a more relaxed environment, which in turn is more enjoyable and I believe ultimately more beneficial to them as young players.

As I continued to watch these pickup games over weeks and months I noticed that without the instruction of a coach or trainer, creativity became a key factor in the development of their game. For example, knowing that the bigger kids could essentially overpower them, the younger boys learned to pass the ball quickly so as not to get caught in a physical battle. On many occasions I would see one of the boys do a new move or demonstrate some kind of skill that another boy would immediately try to copy on the very next play.

While observing these pickup games I couldn’t help but think back to my own soccer experience when I was between the ages of eight to 18. Ever since I started playing soccer at five years old it has always been an extremely organized and structured part of my life. In my American youth soccer experience, there was practically no mixing of players of different ages. The only exception was that one girl you’d find on usually every team who had a birthday that fell right before or after the cut-off date and as a result ended up either playing up or down an age group.

Instead of learning from older or more experienced players, we were simply told what to do by our coaches. While I believe that coaching is important and essential in youth development, it cannot be executed in a manner that mitigates a player’s creativity.

Brazil is known for playing “O Jogo Bonito” (The Beautiful Game). Brazil gained this reputation through its players who appeared to dance with the ball when they played, doing unbelievable and unprecedented things that gave them an advantage over their opponents.

The disorganization and chaos that exists in Brazilian society and is reflected in its soccer culture demands constant evolution and creativity in order to sustain progress and success. In watching these pickup games before my practices I believe that I was watching this theory of organized chaos in action.

Some boys played barefoot, others with the hottest shoes on the market;14-year-olds played against 10-year-olds, 12-year olds challenged 18-year olds. With just enough organization to start the games and stop the fights, this balance of organized chaos created an environment where player growth and creativity could thrive.

American culture is undoubtedly very different from Brazilian culture. In my personal experience, the United States experiences chaos both in a different and less widespread manner compared to Brazil. I think it’s important to keep in mind that the United States as a country is based upon a foundation of its own unprecedented exceptionalism certainly reflected in our patriotic culture.

Should we try to emulate the path that has brought Brazil – and arguably other countries such as Italy, Argentina and Uruguay – success? Or should we embrace the structure that has laid the foundation for our culture? Moving forward in the development of American soccer, I think that these are questions that need to be considered.

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