One coach has influenced the futsal you see today more than any other individual in the history of the sport. You likely know little about him. In fact, you may not even know his name.
In a time when the pursuit of fame and fortune seems more popular than ever, the spotlight and the rewards that come with it have been turned down to pursue a passion for teaching the game.
But then Antonio José Azevedo, more commonly known as Zego, has always challenged conformity. His ideas changed the game once and have the potential to do the same again.
The Beginning Of A Revolution
Back to 1987, a player he was coaching foresaw the impact he would have; “The arrival of Zego has been, or is going to be, a revolution. I say it is going to be because as soon as his methods are understood, it will bring many systems, and I am one of those privileged to be able to be part of them. Zego’s futsal is nothing like has been practised until now. In fact, once we are able to apply all of it, we are going to cause many problems for our opponents.”
The name of that player was Javier Lozano. He would use what he learnt to become a hugely successful coach himself, leading Spain to their first ever World Cup in 2000 and repeating the feat four years later.
More than thirty years after that quote, and despite the Brazilian ending his senior coaching career in the early 2000s, his fingerprint remains evident at the highest level.
Another of his former players is the current coach of Inter Movistar, a club who have achieved unprecedented success over the last five years. Jesus Velasco credited him as ”the person I have learnt the most off. He is my main role model. He is the person that has revolutionised futsal. He has changed the conventions and the way of seeing the sport.”
Ricardinho, the biggest star of that team and of world futsal, winner of six Best Player of the World awards, said his former youth coach “has been very important in my life.”
Zego is most known for being the inventor of the 4-0 system that, alongside 3-1, are the two attacking formations used by today’s elite teams across the world. The inspiration for this ground-breaking innovation arrived by chance.
In the 1970s he was a skilful left winger playing for the Brazil national team when they were about to face Uruguay in the final of the South American Championship. An injury crisis meant that all their defenders and pivots were unable to play so they were forced to use only wingers.
Their coach was very concerned about the situation but Zego and his teammates were confident they would do well. Their assessment was proved right as they played spectacularly to win 6-0 with Zego claiming two of the goals.
Like the story of an apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head prompting an insight into the theory of gravity, this incidental occurrence gave Zego the inspiration to devise a new way of playing. One revolutionised science and the other futsal.
It was in an era when players stuck to rigid positions with narrow responsibilities. His insight was to formulate a team that played with more speed (Zego, not Newton), to have a defender that went forward and not just contributing through winning the ball, and a pivot that not only stayed high up the pitch but would come back to take part in the build-up. These ideas are firmly established now but they were radical at the time.
In theory, it should allow domination of the ball by having more technical players and outnumbering opponents. The opportunity to put it to the test arrived when he turned to coaching after his playing days were over. “I began with smaller teams and we had to gain more ball possession when playing against better teams. Having more possession, we had more possibilities to surprise.” he told Spanish programme Pista Azul.
The former Corinthians and Palmeiras player would achieve great success with these unfancied teams, winning several titles and proving the value of his discovery. Despite this it took time for his innovation to gain recognition and acceptance, only once he left his homeland for Spain. It was there that it was given the identification of “4-0”.
In Spain futsal was played on handball pitches rather than the smaller basketball ones common across South America. The increased space suited this novel way of playing and amplified its advantages.
In contrast, the effectiveness of the 3-1 system was reduced as when a team were pressed the extra space increased the distance between the pivot and the rest of the team. This gave their marker more time to anticipate and win the ball.
This 4-0 system brought further titles during Zego’s period in Spain. However, its greatest impact would come through the impression it left on a generation of players who later became coaches and ‘Zego disciples’.
In Spain today, alongside Velasco’s Inter, Aspil Navarra and Osusuna Magna are the teams with the playing styles most pleasing on the eye through their application of the 4-0. Both have coaches whose playing careers coincided with Zego’s stay in Spain.
A New Objective
Having been so successful, he took the unconventional decision to finish coaching at the elite level relatively early so he could dedicate himself to his principal passion of developing young players. Given the opportunity to work with novices at the local street court, he is filled with enthusiasm. Hence why this titan of the sport describes himself as a “village coach”.
Zego coaching Marcos Sorato who coached Brazil to victory at the 2012 World Cup
His mission has been the enhancement of youth futsal. The Sao Paolo born maestro can’t emphasise enough how crucial developing the next generation is and feels it is an area currently being neglected. “We must take care of the youth game.” He has travelled the world sharing his knowledge with coaches and players in Asia, Europe and South America and is currently working in the USA.
During his travels he has witnessed many problems with the methods and approaches applied in youth coaching today. “We have to make sure the players enjoy playing. We must understand this well. It scares me a little what I’m seeing in Brazil, Spain and Portugal. Children learn through enjoyment. A child needs to leave the training session happy. There is too much mechanisation, the child doesn’t leave happy or satisfied and doesn’t improve.”
He gave an example he witnessed of this misguided coaching approach, “I went to watch the best boys team of 12, 13 years old in Brazil training. It bored me so much! Tremendously boring! They didn’t play at all. It was ‘you have to pass here, run there. The one over there has to move there’. But the opponents? Are they going to let you pass and move? An hour doing this!”
In contrast, he empowers players, “When I start working on movement in 4-0, I don’t tell anyone where they must run. They must see the opponent and then think. When we allow people to think, we give them the freedom to create. They are going to play better.”
He expanded on his philosophy of not dictating what players must do and replacing it with the autonomy to decide depending on the actions of the opponents, “You have to have something planned but the players will position themselves according to the game. When they move, they create a dynamic with so many movements, so many plays.”
The way of coaching that he recommends to youth coaches is the same which brought him so much success at the highest level. “Once someone said to me ‘Zego, you have 32 plays for exiting the press [from the goalkeeper].’ I don’t have any! I have one, play free; The goalkeeper gets the ball, the players begin to move and watch the opponent. The goalkeeper then has a few seconds until they must distribute the ball. It’s the first [play] and the most effective. The one that gives me the best results is playing free.”
He fears the outcome of dictatorial coaching. “This excessive mechanisation, ‘go here, go there’, has what effect? That children prefer playing Playstation.”
The response to a player making a mistake, he explains, should be to support them through offering corrections and encouraging them to continue trying. They shouldn’t be scolded and shouted at for committing errors. “They need to play without fear” is his expert opinion.
Not that he has been immune to committing this error himself in the past as he admitted in an incident when he was Ricardinho’s coach. ”[Ricardinho] went toward the side where there were more opponents. As I was about to speak he went past the two or three opponents. You know what I did?”, quickly realising his mistaken intention, “I shut up. I wasn’t going to say anything. I kept quiet. He can do what he wants!”
Creating players that do the unexpected or unconventional is vital to generate interest in the sport. “People go to see Ricardinho and Falcao. The fans want to witness talent and something amazing. This can only happen when artists like these exist, they are the ones that fill the arenas.”
For those clubs trying to compete with better resourced rivals he offers the following observation, “If a small team wants to go higher and become champions, they have to have a youth academy that is better than the bigger teams.”
The 65-year-old is confident the talent can be found in local communities and can be developed if grassroots coaches, those who struggle to acquire equipment or access a court, are given support. “If the professional clubs help them, lots of talent will emerge.”
His final advice cautions against succumbing to the ego. “We, coaches, are not the protagonists. This is what we need in our head. We are not the stars. We can challenge players and we can help.” The objective of a coach is a very simple one in his opinion, “You have to feel that when the players are happy, you have done your job. It doesn’t need anything more.”
What inspires this humble pioneer to continue to dedicate himself to improving youth futsal? “I like to make kids develop and grow happy and content, and in a family environment.”
A quite modest objective considering his achievements include reinventing the way futsal is played, multiple titles and helping develop one of the sport’s greatest ever stars.
Or maybe not. If youth coaches embraced this philosophy to the same extent his attacking system was, it would ignite another revolution that would leave an even greater legacy on the future of the game.