Defender Micah Richards may be representing England in tonight's Under-21 final against Germany, but it was a Brazilian soccer school in Leeds that played an important part in his development.
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Micah Richards is not your average English footballer. He may have developed his talent in the parks of Leeds and may deliver his answers in crisp northern English, but his skills and swashbuckling style owe more to the Futebol de Salão he played as a boy at a Brazilian soccer school in his home city. The Manchester City FC defender, who already has eleven senior caps, believes the small-sided game really helped develop his technique.
"I went to a Brazilian soccer school as a youngster and it was interesting to try the different training techniques of the South Americans," said Richards, who has played at centre-half for Stuart Pearce's team in Sweden despite being employed as a right-back by the seniors. "Their methods focus more on developing your touch and dribbling, and I think it has helped my game both as a defender and as an attacker."
Ups and downs
Although just turned 21, Richards has endured a roller-coaster international career. He was fast-tracked into the senior squad months after his first Under-21 call-up to become the youngest defender to represent England, against the Netherlands in 2006. However, with Fabio Capello replacing Steve McClaren as manager, he has tumbled down the pecking order. Richards, though, does not view his involvement in this UEFA European U21 Championship as a demotion – rather, he sees tonight's Malmo final against Germany as a springboard to future success.
Penalty jinx lifted
"Playing here in Sweden is a great chance to prove I am worthy of a place in the senior squad for the World Cup next year," said Richards, his side's second goalscorer in their opening victory against Finland. "If we can be successful at this level it will be a great way to prepare us for the same kind of success with the seniors. We've already shown we have the mental strength to win on penalties [against Sweden], which is quite an achievement for any England side. That mental strength could be crucial on Monday."
Having faced Germany defender Jerome Boateng at club level during Manchester City's UEFA Cup quarter-final defeat by Hamburger SV in April, Richards knows well the quality within the German ranks. "Germany are a great side and I particularly like Boateng," said England's No17, who has made 100 Premier League appearances in the last four seasons. "When I played against him in the UEFA Cup he always looked a classy player with plenty of time on the ball, great composure and a tremendous eye for a pass. Hopefully we'll be able to get past him on Monday."
Richards witnessed the tears and heartbreak in the Sweden camp after England's semi-final shoot-out win on Friday and is anxious to remain in a happy dressing room. "The semi-final was one of those magical moments every footballer dreams of having in their career. If it comes down to a shoot-out against Germany, I'll make sure I score mine. We've been practising them for two years – I don't think even the German side could have prepared as much as us for penalties."
Click here to watch an exclusive interview with Richards on the UEFA Training Ground as he discusses his career and thoughts ahead of the final.