“You are about to witness the strength of Street Knowledge”
Creative, brave, exciting, game-changing.
The street footballer is one of a kind. The sort of player that defeats the status quo of footballing talent. The sort of player we all marvel over. The sort of player to think outside the box. The sort of player who constantly gets us off our seats. The sort of player that is not for imitation.
Unstructured football is not a new phenomenon. For many players, especially those from working class backgrounds, playing on the street, in the playground or on the beach was common practice. The standard of youth coaching in many decades back was at best, mediocre to above average. Today, this has improve but players in many cultures are still embracing the game within the concrete jungles of a street cage in an Lyon estate or the floodlight empty car park in Amsterdam.
“So I used to go and play with them [older players]. That made me strong, playing against big men. These games were in the street, with the street lights for goal posts. And the games were always like my street against the guys from the next street. With those games, the competition between the streets was fierce – but really fun.”
“I think that’s where I started to learn everything about football. You have to be good to play in those games.”
“Sometimes I was playing in the street until midnight. Seriously, my dad was really scared when I did that. But he knew what I was doing. We would play until it got dark, even play in the dark, because we loved football so much.” – Moussa Dembele, Lyon & France U21 Striker
Playing on the streets means you’re probably not being taught explicitly by a coach as the ball rolls. But the streets game itself becomes the teacher. How? Lets contextualize this into more detail:
- In a ball cage or a narrow space, young players are playing in tight areas so implicitly they learn to be comfortable on the ball, using different parts of the foot and being unorthodox to develop mastery, despite very limited time and/or space. Nobody wanted to be the bad player to go in goal, so the incentive to make themselves skillful was immense. No skill and you will never see the ball, .
- No one wore bibs yet all the players, therefore you have to know who is on your team. This factor helps players improve their perception skills of the game in front of them, being able to make quick decisions on the ball and cues of the game through non-verbal communication of teammates and opposition.
- Playing in the school playground area means that you’ll probably encounter multiple other games going on from other kids. Some more statics and others involving a lot of running. Nobody wanted to bump into another person not involved in the match therefore awareness was forced to be developed.
- The contact hours with the ball are endless. On a weekday players will probably fit a small game before morning line-up at school, then you had recess/playtime midday, then after school you’d either go to your local club to practice with your teammates and afterwards or if kids didn’t have training, they will play more outside their home until it was dinner time or it got dark. A constant cycle for multiple days a week. Nobody was standing in long lines.
- The games were played on concrete, asphalt or cobblestone pitches. Trip and you’d feel it hard! Developing balance on the ball and off the ball is paramount.
- Different games to develop different things. Wallball/Rebound = developing first touch and movement, Wembley/World Cup = Playing through tight defence through combination play or dribbling, Headers and Volleys = …you get the point!
- Competitiveness and bravery. Normally you’ll see multi-age ranges playing. Nobody wants to humiliate themselves in front of the older guys, but rather earn their respect. Also the games were highly-competitive. Losing was not an option and bragging rights was the best reward available.
All of the above make up what you’d call Constraints Based Learning. This is basically the manipulation of certain constraints, different information is presented to the learner. In turn, the learner is then tasked to find their own solutions to the problems faced in order to meet a goal. The constraints that can be manipulated can be narrowed down into three categories:
- Environment (Surface, Weather etc.)
- Individual (Height, weight, speed, experience, confidence etc.)
- Task (Size of field, rules, equipment, number of players, duration, zones, minimum/maximum of ball touches etc)
When academies acquire these breed of players, the often bring a spark that is unique to the team setup. That being said, the potential lack of organised football means street players might end-up finding themselves in a transition period. Players an easily develop bad habits in technique due to the lack or imbalance of external coaching. Tactics and positions are not really a thing either as anyone plays anywhere. This can be developed with good coaching, while the collection of perceptual, decisional, tactical and motor skills cannot be compensated for if a player has not attained them by eight to twelve years old.
As society has changed with the rise of technology and the outdoors being less safe of an environment in some communities than yesteryear, players don’t play much as before on the street compared to previous generations. Therefore teams and academies now look to bring the street to the players. Man United are a prime example of this action, as explained by ex-youth coach, Paul McGuinness (via Training Ground Guru):
“He’d play with Lingard, Pogba, Ravel Morrison [all aged 17 then]. It was 13-a-side and looked like a scramble, but that’s what we wanted, so you had to have the quick-witted skills, the techniques, the timings, to survive.”
“You had the future world’s most expensive footballer, just three years from winning Serie A, playing with you when you were 12, doing tricks, flicking it over heads, one-twos, drag-backs, the things he does now. Marcus was a privileged spectator, right next to Pogba on the pitch, learning by osmosis.”
“We did a game on a basketball court in Carrington,” “Wednesday afternoon, the boys are tired. OK, let’s play for fun. And somebody would start it off, he’d do a trick, then someone else, and then it becomes a competition.”
“Suddenly it’s Pogba v Ravel. Januzaj, Lingard, and a game that started at walking pace is fast and competitive. They were magical sessions.”
“And before, that, from the ages of nine to 11, “four v four, sometimes without a goalkeeper”.
If we cross over to England, this style of player is being embraced more and more. London brings out a sea of mentally strong players who can bamboozle through defenders like Jadon Sancho, Wilfred Zaha or Callum Hudson-Odoi who honed their style and identity as a player in the street/estate environment while playing organizes grassroots football before joining the big academies.
The notorious and famous Banlieues (Suburbs in English) within French cities in and out of Paris such as Sarcelles, Bondy and Corbeil-Essonnesis are just one the many hotbeds of natural talent. Les Banlieues comes with its problems such as high unemployment rates, low income and crime along with being noted for it’s high number of families from immigrant background, mainly North, West and Central African. The common denominator here though is the power of football, with young, will-powered kids using it as a tool to bring potential betterment into themselves and the loved ones around them. Many cities such as Rosario, Amsterdam, Rio, London, Brussels, Lagos and so forth all have similar situations with the game. As a nation however, France is the poster boy of all of this, with some of the current generations most electric players such as Ousmane Dembele, Riyad Mahrez, Kylian Mbappe, Karim Benzema, Zinedine Zidane and many, many more developed within this gritty but vibrant environment which has given the nation two World Cups.
Some nations, struggle to develop this style of player. This can boil down to many factors. In the US for example, the game is a more middle-class sport compared to Basketball, making it less accessible to play unless you can afford to join a sporting club. In India, China and the US, other sports are ahead of football in terms of public interest, therefore the external motivation of football integrated into everyday culture through playing and/or watching it will be lacking compared to in Morocco or Colombia. In Qatar, the population is smaller than most nations around the world meaning a smaller talent pool to find players, but state-backed funding is seeing the 2022 World Cup hosts build their way into producing exciting talent, as shown in their recent Asian Cup triumph. Even Oliver Bierhoff stated that the coaching system in Germany has become too rigid and formalized with players needing more space for creativity and enjoyment.
It is intrinsic motivation that drives all this. Nobody is forcing these players to go outside and play. For some its for the love of the game, others it might be just a hustle to make money. Even professional players want a sense of freedom and enjoyment in their football (Look at Man United currently for any further proof.) Managers can find it hard to deal with this style of player. One who has been brought up to play on their own impulse and thinking. The usual stereotype is that they’re indiscipline and don’t know how to be a team player. Whether this is true or not is up to the reader, but I think many can agree on this. That they’re fearless and thrive off confidence, and they’re also misunderstood, just like most artists who don’t do the ordinary. Many managers are aware of how unique the Street Footballer really can be and are willing to even build their whole team strategy around their strengths. These players have most likely dealt with societal pressures that maybe other social demographics cannot relate to growing up too such as poverty and/or institutional discrimination. Therefore managers with great man-management skills are able to get the best out of their football because they are footpaths to their own careers rather than road-blocks.
These misunderstood geniuses will probably stay just that for many years. Misunderstood. But as the Beautiful Game progresses, we must protect and celebrate the joy that the Street Footballer has given to us as fans and watchers.
The Streets never lie.