In the beginning, there was just a ball and enough players on both sides to have a right go at it. That’s the essence of football, before rules were created and organisations formed to watch over these sacred tenets of the game.
It also harks back to the time when we were all little, when it was a daily ritual with the neighbourhood kids, a competition for bragging rights and our own little arenas where we tried to replicate the same slick moves we’d seen our football heroes pull off on TV the night before.
Back in those days, there were no real conventions; no substitutes, no lines, no warm-ups, no cards and no pressure from coaches who screamed instructions on what you could or could not do. There were no real pitches too. Play on an empty field? Sure, bags, slippers or sticks can make goalposts. How about at the void decks? Absolutely, the pillars make excellent obstacles. What about an enclosed room or area? No problem, crushed papers or empty bottles become the ball while chairs can make the goal.
You make the rules up as you go. The game itself becomes the teacher. Kids experiment with the ball and its surroundings, learn from failed attempts at getting past players, or observe the ‘better’ or older kids, and eventually try to take them on – and beat them.
And what if it’s just you and the ball? Not a problem at all, with walls, rubbish chutes or poles among obstacles that can serve as your best friend or as a challenge to try and accomplish.
This ‘discovery learning’ was really simple, accessible, affordable, and at the very least a good way to keep fit.
Most importantly, it was a way for kids to express themselves, be creative, enjoy and have fun all at the same fun.
From the Streets to the Pros
It is said that many world-class players were born and raised in this ‘street football’ environment. Some have even used it as a catalyst to make a more than decent living for themselves and become icons of world football.
How many times have we heard a rags-to-riches story where young, poverty-stricken footballers hone their craft in the slums, before they eventually work their way up to becoming the best professionals of their generation?
Think of the achievements of football greats such as Pele, Diego Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who all started to hone their craft in the streets or slums, where street football dominated their then-young lives.
Pele, arguably the best footballer to have graced the earth, grew up in abject poverty, so much so that his first football was a sock stuffed with newspaper or a grapefruit. Cristiano Ronaldo, the reigning Ballon d'Or and FIFA World Player of the Year, grew up in poverty too in Funchal, Madeira, but used the rural streets to develop the jaw-dropping skills that we so often gush about today.
Zinedine Zidane also learned to play soccer in the streets of La Castellane, a rough section of Marseille, while Alexis Sanchez proudly declared that it was in the streets and in neighbourhood games where he learned how to play football.
You get the idea.
While it is admittedly easier to picture the less developed countries or poorer income families relying on street football to hone their craft for the game, it should be noted that it is not just reserved exclusively for the less fortunate. It is a universal education system for all, regardless of upbringing and social status. The only superiority, if any, stems from the skill and ability to adapt to the surroundings.
Take England forward Wayne Rooney for example. He practiced his football skills in the streets of Croxteth in Liverpool near his house when he was young, and attributes to playing on the streets to helping him develop his technique, shooting and accuracy. Such was the impact street football had on him that it eventually inspired a reality show called Wayne Rooney’s Street Striker, where the producers attempted to find the most skillful street footballer in the United Kingdom.
There is an extraordinary beauty about street football. Amidst the ‘football education’ it gives to those who subscribe to it, the greatest lesson it can provide comes in the development of a kid’s ‘football brain’. It’s that awareness, that ability to see passages of play way before anyone else can and the proper understanding at how the game is played. We have often heard how that term is frequently used to describe a footballer, and how difficult it is to inculcate that in a kid. Some would even say it cannot be taught.
But in true evolution format, it’s hard to disagree that the frequency of such random street football activities has decreased. We regularly hear of the term “the good old days” of playing football on the streets or wherever the ball might lead them. The freedom to play is endless then. It has become much more of a scarcity nowadays.
Fewer spaces are allowed or are readily available to play. Grass fields are now parks. Void decks have the “No Football” sign; roads are a no-no with vehicles passing by making it a death wish for those senseless enough to want to play football.
That doesn't mean street football is dead though, or that kids these days can't drop their books and seek out their mates for a pick-up game of football. Even with televisions and video game consoles, you'll still find young lads in schools, community centres and housing estates channeling their footballing heroes as they chase a dream and play the sport they love.
This passion for the game is what drives football lovers all around the world, from London to Qatar to Singapore. It's hard to find a place in the globe where carrying a ball around won't help you make instant friends with the local population. If the game is a religion, then street football is its temple.
Back to the Streets
Making it to the big time doesn't mean leaving it all behind though, as some of the top professionals have shown.
Former Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro made a huge impact Tiger Street Football competition last year, dazzling spectators and players alike with his skill on the court. 'The Berlin Wall' might have grown up as a self-confessed 'street urchin' practising his skills on the streets of Fuorigrotta, Napoli, but as he waltzed his way around the court in Singapore you could tell that time had scarcely taken those gifts away.
You learn to play it smart and hard on the streets. To develop your positioning and your athleticism, and to think several steps ahead of your opponent. You need to hone the creativity, agility and instinct to become the king of the street football court.
And it's almost time again, to celebrate those qualities as we head back to the streets. For Cannavaro, substitute Deco.
It's the former Barcelona, Chelsea and Porto playmaker's turn to show off his skills come 9 August in Cambodia, as he attempts to uncage football and release it from it's traditional shackles. What will football be like, with lesser boundaries and a new set of rules to help enjoy the game to it's fullest? Watch this space.
For more information on Deco and Tiger Street Football, visit www.uncagefootball.com.
Main Image Credit: Shaun Stanley