For all the glory and fame, fortune and acclaim the world of football can bring, every player who has played and who will play the game all at one point or another comes from humble beginnings.
In mainland Europe, you’ll seldom be able to walk through a city street or a small town without seeing a couple of kids kicking a ball against a wall or trying to dribble past a friend.
In less affluent countries where footballs are less available, anything remotely spherical will do in order for a child to hone their ball skills.
It is this deep connection all those who play football have with each other that makes it ‘the beautiful game’. At the sport’s core, Freestyle football is the ultimate form of expression through football.
In the vast tapestry of football’s evolution, the spotlight has often been on the grand stages of stadiums and international tournaments.
Freestyle football is the art of juggling a football, using any body part save for anywhere between the elbow to your fingers. It’s a combination of football tricks, dance, acrobatics and often features music as an integral part of the player’s routine.
Rooted in the urban landscapes where the sport was born, this captivating blend of creativity and competitiveness has picked up significant popularity over the last 30 years.
The History of Freestyle Football
The art of freestyle football can be traced back to Southeast Asia. Games such as chinlone, jianzi and sepak takraw, very much mark the first steps toward modern football. They centre around skills that are still hugely important within freestyle football, even 2,000 years later.
The first football-like game, Cuju, centred around keeping a ‘ball’ up in the air and scoring by playing the ball into nets without the use of hands.
Descriptions of the game date back to the 2nd/3rd century BC and would suggest the origins of a crucial skill within freestyle football: Juggling.
Known by many names across the world, Keepy-uppies, Ball Juggling, Kick-ups or even Kemari in Japan, the practice is so commonplace nothing is really thought of it.
But it has very little practicality in regular professional football, as at most a player will expect to juggle a ball 2 or 3 times before it is no longer beneficial to do so.
In the world of freestyle football, however, the skill is integral to the art of the sport.
The majority of tricks are performed with the ball off the ground, many skills requiring a mastery of juggling to even begin to attempt.
It’s an incredibly simple concept, and so simple in practice. Yet, professional footballers such as Martin Braithwaite, Roberto Soldado, Theo Hernandez and even Ousmane Dembele have all been caught out when it comes to kick-ups.
But, as much as modern freestyle tricks have gotten more and more audacious as generations build on the work of their predecessors, some of the sport’s most famous tricks were first shown to the world on stage.
It was through the magic of the circus, that the first freestyle footballers were born.
Fundamental freestyle tricks such as the ‘Neck Stall’ and ‘Around The World’ were first popularly performed in the West by circus performers, notably including Enrico Rastelli and Francis Brunn.
These performers were jugglers, in the most literal sense, with the two world-renowned for being able to juggle many objects at once whilst keeping plates spinning, or even while jumping over a skipping rope.
At this point, these freestyle football tricks were just impressive feats of dexterity, a footballing ability wasn’t even a requirement to pull them off.
While now, many football-mad kids pull off elasticos on the playground, the notion of freestyle football and skill moves were brought to mainstream football in the 80s.
Freestyle football was catapulted from impressive curiosity to an idolator fascination when Diego Maradona famously brought his freestyle ‘Life is Life’ warm-up to international attention while playing for SSC Napoli.
But for all its popularity, pundits, players and fans alike heavily criticised the concept of freestyle football, deeming it as useless on a football pitch and having no relevance to the game.
Those who made such statements clearly fail to understand that to many who grow up dreaming of playing football, the sport is a form of artistic expression. Freestyle is undoubtedly the ultimate form of expressing yourself with a football.
At the beginning of the 21st century, Freestyler football was elevated further as it made its way into the homes of millions upon millions thanks to a Nike advert featuring Ronaldinho. The advert helped inspire many to practice alone with a ball and develop new moves and tricks.
The Sport of Freestyle Football
When it comes to the evolution from keeping the ball up to around-the-worlds and borderline breakdancing without letting the ball touch the floor, the skills on display have evolved to near superhuman levels.
Its high skill ceiling comes from the fact that all you need to hone your skills is a football.
This is where street football comes in, while freestyle and street football are their own separate things, both go hand in hand.
Those with only a ball and their urban surroundings to work with as children have no choice but to perfect their ball control, their dribbling and of course their skill moves.
Of course, many children without immediate access to grass football pitches found themselves in the same boat, and as such street football was born, the concept dating as far back as football’s rise to prominence.
Street football embodies the raw essence of the sport – the freedom of expression, the improvisation, and the sheer joy of playing with friends. It’s where skills are honed, dreams are nurtured, and the magic of the game comes alive in its purest form.
How Do You Play? And How Do You Win?
Well, freestylers are almost wizardlike in understanding what they can do with a football. To compete at a professional level takes thousands of hours of practice.
Throw in the fact you then have to invent your own freestyle routine and you have a sport with a ridiculously high skill ceiling.
- Each battle lasts for 3 minutes. With each player is given 3 rounds
- All the players are divided to form circles and perform their tricks on the circles’ centre spot.
- There is only one player in the centre at a time.
- Each player is allotted 30 seconds to do their routine each round.
- The players have to perform three essential disciplines: Upper, sit-downs, Lowers. Failure to accomplish all 3 parts within each round will result in no points for that round.
- There should not be any mistakes. A flawless performance is expected.
- Usage of props and aids to enhance the act is not allowed.
- Every player has the right to start from the beginning if he/she is not satisfied with his/her performance.
- Dropping the ball is considered a mistake.
- The competition is judged by flow (transition from trick to trick), originality and difficulty.
- Judges decide the winner, whoever has been given the most points wins
- It is strictly prohibited to use more than one ball in a single battle. Freestylers often use their own balls.
- Players cannot change their equipment, such as shoes or ball.
- If it is still a tie, there will be an extra round. The extra round will be judged the same way as a regular battle but only lasts 30 seconds.
Different styles have been developed and expanded upon over the years, with the main disciplines being: Lowers, uppers, sit-downs, grounds and blocking.
Lowers are lower body/air move tricks that can be performed while standing and using feet or legs.
Uppers are tricks performed with the upper body, so the head, chest and shoulders
Sit-downs are tricks performed while sitting/lying down
Ground move tricks are performed with the ball on the ground at the player’s feet.
Blocking tricks are performed by holding onto the ball (keeping it off the ground) with lower body parts. This discipline is inspired by breakdancing and is among the hardest to master.
There are also Acrobatic tricks inspired by circus skills, breakdancing and gymnastics.
There are also Transitions which are less technical moves used to bridge the gap between more extensive tricks, or when switching styles.
When done well, these transitional tricks will allow a freestyler to flow from style to style naturally.
World-class footballers have also spoken highly of the sport. Some of football’s most revered on-the-ball players, such as Cristiano Ronaldo Lionel Messi, Neymar Jr. and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have all credited freestyle and street football as a big part of developing their game.
Furthermore, in 2015 Ronaldinho was officially recognised as an ambassador for the sport by the World Freestyle Federation.
Where to Play Freestyle Football?
Unlike other variations, Freestyle football is easy to get into. You just need a football to practice with. The world is your freestyle Oyster.
But if/when you’re finally ready to take the leap to some competitive play you can check out the official Freestyle Football Federation website: thewffa.org
For less official competition your best bet is to watch out for Facebook groups/communities near you.