I spent last week in China, competing in a futsal tournament alongside players like Paul Scholes, Michael Owen, Stan Collymore, Michel Salgado, Lee Sharpe, Marcus Bent and Marcel Desailly.
I’ve not played futsal competitively before. It’s like five-a-side football, but the goals are smaller, the ball, too. You have to be more accurate in everything that you do. Spanish kids grow up playing it and it’s one reason why Spain creates so many technically good players.
A good first touch is vital. If you don’t control the ball, you lose it. Futsal improves your touch hugely and that’s one of the most important factors in being a top-class player.
It also improves your speed of thought as the ball moves quickly. Speed is encouraged; penalties are given if the goalkeeper doesn’t move the ball quickly. Because the ball is smaller and heavier, you need to control it in different ways, with the sole of your boot, for example. Creativity, tricks and turns are encouraged, you have use them to beat a man.
Counterattacks are frequent. You always need to find space and you don’t get much chance to come up for air. We played a couple of Chinese teams who play futsal professionally. Chinese kids play futsal and they will also benefit from the skills they pick up if they move to 11-a-side. Not all futsal players stop playing – there’s a professional league in Spain.
Of the names I’ve mentioned, you can guess who was brilliant. Salgado – or Tarzan as we called him, as he looks like Tarzan and never stops moving about. He grew up playing it.
Brazilian kids are the same. Futsal has a World Cup, which only Spain and Brazil have won. Look at the best two teams in world football – in futsal and 11-a-side. I’m sure there’s a connection. England aren’t in the top 25, in futsal.
Scholes adapted quickly, but not every player has his technical ability. He was popular in China, where we played in front of crowds ranging from 3,000 to 7,000. Manchester United and Liverpool have huge fan bases there and players like Scholes and Owen got a big reaction, also partly because they’ve only just stopped playing.
I was surprised that Scholesy travelled. He usually likes the minimum of fuss and to be at home, but when you have played football all your life it is hard to just suddenly stop. You miss it. Not the actual game. You don’t look back and remember moments, but you miss the dressing room ambience.
It is a cliche to talk about the banter, but it is one major aspect which makes being a footballer such a special occupation.
Scholes has a dry humour and he can be cutting. When we played, he’d say things to me which nobody else would get away with. But he has a way with him that stops you taking offence. I enjoyed hooking back up with him and appearing alongside him.
The veterans’ circuit is a pleasurable way to keep playing and getting that dressing-room buzz after retirement. I don’t see myself doing it in five or 10 years, but for now I can get around, I’m still fit and can still give a good account of myself. It is another strand in the business of keeping yourself busy and filling the days after 20 years of being told where to train and where to go.
I might sound like I really miss being a footballer, but I’m happy where I’m at. I’m at peace with myself and so were the other players on the trip. It was nice to speak to them in a relaxed atmosphere because when you play against each other during your career, you shake hands at the end of the game and go your separate ways. You never get to know them.
Like me, they loved playing, but they are also glad they retired when they did and while they were still at the top.
They were fortunate to be financially secure for life, but sensible to step back, recognise that they’ve had fine careers in the higher echelons and move on with the next stage of their life.
I like having time to enjoy other things in life now that I’m not playing, but you need to work hard at building up another life when you stop. There are plenty of veterans’ tournaments – I do five or six a year.
Players fill their time in different ways. Collymore is always tweeting, doing radio and keeping himself occupied. Owen is quieter, but he is a TV pundit and has his racing stable.
China is a fascinating country, even if we didn’t see much of it and, even at 42, it wasn’t too late to learn new futsal skills.
Andrew Cole’s column is written with the assistance of the European football correspondent Andy Mitten.
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