“ONLY WHEN BRAZILIAN KIDS REACH AROUND 14 YEARS OF AGE DOES ANYONE START TALKING TO THEM ABOUT TEAM SHAPE AND TACTICS. UNTIL THEN IT’S ALL ABOUT TECHNIQUE, TRICKS, SHOOTING, DRIBBLING AND SPONTANEITY. WHAT IS THE POINT OF TALKING TO CHILDREN ABOUT TRIANGLES AND BLIND-SIDE RUNS IF THEY CANNOT EFFORTLESSLY CONTROL THE BALL, PASS OR SHOOT?”
As a boy, when I wasn’t playing football, I was watching it, and if I wasn’t playing or watching then I was playing Fifa. During school holidays, there would be 20-30 of us with silly grins just looking for a pitch. A space. We’d boost each other over fences in a search for somewhere to play.
A good game of knockouts, the rules are simple. Whoever is out first keeps watch; for the others, it’s free for all. Allowed out during the day with a lot of time to kill, in an an age where we couldn’t stay indoors and didn’t want to. But unfortunately, there are no such spaces like that anymore. So where do kids go?
Walking through Mile End, I passed the astroturf football pitches and saw a bunch of kids get kicked off an empty pitch, although they were willing to pay a small fee they were denied and told to leave. Guess where those kids will now be instead of playing football? Most likely, on the road.
It’s been a thing for a long time in England; youngsters not being allowed to play in facilities that aren’t actually being used. Not letting local kids use these community resources. This is in contrast to the freedom that communities in France afford them.
,Having lived in both places, I’ve realised their vast differences in approach to football. In England, its very structured, and if you show enough talent, you get picked up by an academy when you’re very young and stay in the system until you’re scholar age (16-18).
In France, clubs tend to pick up young players when they’re older (14-18) especially amongst the lower leagues. This doesn’t happen all the time but it is a frequent proven method when scouting players in central Parisian areas. This gives the players the freedom to develop their technical skills before becoming part of any system of tactics, formations and styles of place.
In Paris, football starts at sunrise and only finishes as all the mothers of the area can be heard calling their kids home one by one. The culture of street football in France is much more alive and beneficial than in England.
The effects of this can be seen if we delve deeper into the quality of players that hail from France and England. We never really praise English talent for having excellent technique or ball control and when we do it’s rarely at the same level as truly world-class players. There isn’t an English midfielder that would get in the French national team, but why is that?
French documentary Ballon sur Bitume (‘concrete football’) celebrates the culture of families in estates called les banlieues. These estates have dealt with a lot of neglect and are largely populated by immigrants so are rich in different cultures. Ballon sur Bitume tells the stories of young people growing up in such places.
Somehow these areas have become the perfect breeding ground for football: a large number of young players, open spaces and gymnasiums free to use by locals creates a culture of fast-paced, intense but informal matches on small pitches. That’s where the flair is born; technical quality and individual expression is allowed to roam free.
I like to say that as a child all I did was play football but it wasn’t until I went to France that I realised that there are levels to this, and my countrymen were on a whole other level. Not only would they play all day but everyone was extremely technically sound. No matter what size or age, everyone was able to control the ball and manipulate it beautifully
They allow their youth the opportunity to do what they all love to do, even if it’s only a few out of a bunch that will make the step to become professionals. In England, we aren’t given the same freedom nor do we have the same facilities available for us to use, let alone any free pitches.
“Our parents aren’t that strict and so they let us play, and playing all day every day really helps you improve your dribbles and technique. I think that’s why the best technical players come from the streets.”
I think the main reason England doesn’t produce a lot of world-class players is because our football is too structured. It gets kids to do everything by the book, whereas in countries such as Brazil, Spain and France, they have fun first and foremost and that brings out their creativity. So, when they grow up and add structure to their game, the creativity is already instilled.
Manchester City forward Riyad Mahrez, one of the most electric players in the Premier League, has said: ‘’I was a street footballer. I was improving my technique every day. As a youngster, you saw me in every photo with a ball. That’s why I’m such a skinny boy. I missed dinner sometimes. My mother left me some food to eat when I got back from the streets.’’
Players such as Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Paul Pogba, Benjamin Mendy and many others have all hailed from the concrete courts. These are players who have led their country to world cup glory.
Britain’s youth,is feeling increasingly marginalised and worthless. They feel they have no future and don’t believe they can achieve anything. Their role models are ephemeral and their values therefore skewed. By trying to keep up with phony images of perfect lives – designer clothes and get rich quick attitudes displayed on social media, it’s all about likes, rather than being real and being themselves.
They’re frustrated, insecure and resentful, which can lead to anger, crime and violence. Given the void that now exists thanks to government cuts, it is incumbent on us to do something about it – and to stop this downward spiral and hopefully prevent more young blood being spilled on the streets.
Perhaps encouraging – rather than discouraging – the culture of street football can play its part.
Photo courtesy of Emily Coruna under Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0