Taking Football to the Streets — Part I

Taking Football To The Streets
Part One
In a stunning follow-up to his acclaimed 10,000 Touches article, Jonathan Townsend looks at taking the game back to the streets and interviews freestyle football legend, Edward Van Gils.

By Jonathan Townsend | 3 March 2014
A heavy rain and the repeated chops, turns, and drags of my feet turned the vibrant green pitch into a pockmarked mud plot of land as I counted the penultimate touches of the 10,000 touch workout I wrote about previously. Looking at my watch, I scoffed at the time. I was at a park three miles away from home and knew I was late for dinner. In fact, looking back, at 14 years of age, I was probably flirting with being late for a lot of things including my own development as a player.

I brought back a wealth of cultural and footballing knowledge after my stint in Holland and I did my best to continue the good habits I was spoiled with overseas; promising myself that I’d be the primary person responsible for my development. Back then, over a decade ago at the time of this writing, not many young players were armed with the wherewithal to hold themselves accountable for their own success or lack thereof. Only a few, the crème de la crème, ever really “make it” in football.

Today, it seems the number of young players who hold themselves responsible for their own success or demise nears a negative integer value. It’s almost non-existent. Back home, as I reflected on my experience some of the most barefaced truths about my story from that summer in Holland came to fruition:

1. Young players not only need great coaches, they need coaches who’d coach for free if it meant developing good players

2. I had no chance of playing professionally – but it didn’t matter, I wanted to improve and continue to play as long and far as I could

3. Today’s player has too many distractions and is pulled in too many different directions within the sport and within the realm of athletics. Players need to find their own way with positive guidance, not be force fed instruction by overzealous parents and paid club coaches who are too results-driven to foster maturity and enjoyment for the players

4. Improvement necessitates sacrificing, embracing and adopting what works in other parts of the world

5. I needed to investigate the game at the level where most kids learn and still play: the street football scene. In doing so, I interviewed two prominent players, Edward Van Gils from Holland and John Farnworth from England to learn about their journeys and experiences and to show the transparency that extends between two great footballing nations.

Did every player I saw on training pitch at Hengelo make it to the professional level? Most certainly not. But therein is perhaps the biggest problem: unless there’s a pot of gold (guaranteed scholarships, a chance to play professional football) at the end of the rainbow, young players and misguided coaches don’t address the deficiencies of a broken system.

As I read the numerous emails and comments regarding the importance of the vaunted 10,000 touches I focused on in the article, the questions and criticisms intrigued me. People asked for the specific workout, the time of day one could accomplish such a feat, how many years they would have to perform the touches, and if I had any peer reviewed scientific sporting journals to back up “the claim” that 10,000 touches a day would take a player to “another level”.

Admittedly, I’ve spent many hours in my office at home staring at the blinking curser on the blank computer screen thinking about how to respond with my two Labrador retrievers at my feet staring at me with innocent looks of confusion. I knew I’d struck a chord in the football world, which was good. But on the other hand, people were looking for definitive solutions –ones they hoped came in a shiny package with a pretty bow.

All jokes aside, the answers are many, but the ethos of the topic is that success must be redefined. Surely, the Dutch method of player development is one of a select few around the world with a proven track record of success.

When I decided to tell my story about my development and how I challenged myself to get 10,000 touches a day, I merely aimed to shed light on an aspect of the modern game today’s young players aren’t equipped with – free play and development within their communities away from their organized teams. By the time I learned the importance of ball mastery and technique, I was 14 years-old. But, what that particular practice represented was a culmination of tried and tested applications I embraced and added to my repertoire of skills and training methods on my own.

Like many kids, I played organized football from the start. At four years-old, I had a team, in a league, and for some reason, wins and losses mattered. However, I perfected many aspects of my game far away from the lush grass pitches, the adoring eyes of my parents, and the pressures associated with winning – all through street football. Looking back, there was nothing intricate about kicking a football around on the pavement by myself or with local players; it just felt free.

Growing up with a plethora of football experiences, I can recall having the most fun playing street football – inventing new moves, enjoying the solitude, racing the setting sun to get home for dinner having learned a new trick. In street football, I found a burgeoning love for the game that, in my opinion, is often removed by an obsessed culture of overly-organized teams, an idiotic emphasis on “winning”, overreacting coaches, and overreaching parents.

My self-sacrificing parents poured every ounce and penny into trips abroad that made me appreciate and develop as a footballer. But a summer in Holland taught me quite a bit more about the sport I loved. In Holland, I learned the importance of regimented training, but I also learned to rediscover the fun of playing street football. I played every day. Rain or shine. Street football led to creative football. It led me to develop a competitive side of my game that no coach could instill.

When I returned home, I continued to play street football. One rainy afternoon, a friend and I saw one of the famed early Nike Freestyle campaign commercials and we immediately took to his computer to log on – at dial-up speeds, mind you – to websites hoping to find videos of ‘freestyle’ footballers. These players were expressing themselves in ways I’d never seen before.

Some of it was purely exhibitionist, but most of it was creative beyond imagination. Isn’t that what football is about, enjoyment and creativity? The first freestyle player I ever discovered was a Dutch player named Edward Van Gils.

Van Gils is perhaps, the player I identify with the most since his moves and videos seemed to permeate on the results pages of the internet search engines of the early 2000’s. What I saw in Edward’s play was the aesthetic display of what football should be for a young player – fun.

The fluidity, the speed of his technique and touches (more on that later), and the creative genius of his skills gave me something to aspire to emulate. Did watching Edward Van Gils lead me to play professionally? Nope. And that was never the point, nor should it be. But, watching that kind of football made me smile – and that was something organized football had beaten out of me at a young age.

As the years passed, I enjoyed some success in the sport. I played collegiately, met some great people in through the sport and continue to play in competitive men’s leagues. It’s safe to say my obsession with the game has only grown, so I decided to contact Edward Van Gils and John Farnworth and ask them about their journeys and development. As ambassadors of the sport my aim was to gain insight and pay homage to Edward and John and the other Freestyle/street footballers who, in many respects, are perhaps the best teachers of the game.

In their narrative and responses, I found an affirmation and connection with my own experiences in Europe, especially in Holland in relation to the importance of consistent repetition (getting thousands of supplemental touches), free play, dedication, and persistence on account of the player.

Interview with Edward Van Gils

How did you start playing football?

Like any other Dutch kid, you grab a ball and play outside for hours just having fun until you’re like 5 or 6 years old. Then, you join a club which competes every weekend and you practice during the week.

Did you ever dream of playing professional football? If so, do you have a story about what happened that lead you to be the world’s best freestyle footballers?

Well to be honest, not really, it was my passion and my own world where I felt comfortable like nowhere else. So, I didn’t care what happened, I just wanted to play 24/7. It didn’t matter to me at what level or if I would become pro or not. And I also think that helped me to develop to who I am today – no pressure, just pure football.

In my opinion, success comes from passion and hard work, not mental pressure from a parent or a coach (or yourself) who pushes you at a young age. Just have fun. When you’re happy, you accomplish great things in life! Besides that, you also need discipline for yourself [to play] not just because someone tells you to.

As a young player, how many touches did you get a day with the ball? How many hours did you practice to develop your skills?

Wow, I don’t know. We played when school was out until our mom came to the court angrily because the food was getting cold (no joke). After that, we played again until the sun went down. Back then, parents weren’t that paranoid thinking, “Oh, is my kid OK?”

What is your goal as a freestyle footballer? Do you want to see this side of the game grow more? Or, do you like the “underground” (hidden) aspect of the game?

My goal? To inspire kids, to enthuse kids to play, and most important to show the world my art and while I’m playing, forget every problem in the world because that’s my world – my happy place. Do I want to see it grow? Street football is the biggest sport in the world. Whoever picks up a ball and goes outside is a street football player. Their level doesn’t count in street football, it’s just fun and it’s to improve yourself.

But I would like 11-a-side coaches to take it more serious. Street skills might be 60 percent useless for 11-a-side, but that 40 percent that you can use is a lot my friend! In my opinion, skills should be a tool when you have solution to get out of any situation on the pitch that will make a player more confident, right?

A confident player (person) is a better player (person) because having faith in what you do makes you accomplish just that extra bit in life and sport. Fear will hold you back! Plus, what supporter doesn’t want to see some nice, functional skills? [All this produces] better players, brings more fans, more sponsors, more money which a club can invest in good players or schooling. It’s a win/win situation (laughs).

I feel this type of football, which requires an exceptional level of skill, is not appreciated as much as the mainstream game. Do you agree? Why or why not?

I do agree. Creative people are mostly (not all the time, like Cristiano and Messi) more difficult people because they have ideas of their own and can be less disciplined than the “normal” people. Take a look at Ronaldinho, Zlatan, or Maradona, not every coach is willing to put time and effort into these players because they are the boss and they say you need to do what they tell you to do. So, they get less-talented players who can do less and have less talent, but listen to and execute whatever a coach says, which is also a talent!

But what if a coach can take his time and get a creative player to execute plans (this takes more time and effort) then you get the Messi’s of the world. But because of pressure, media, and sponsors, coaches don’t get or take the time to work with difficult players, or they just don’t know how to deal with them.

Skillful players are mostly street players because the play from an early age on the streets because they love it! Plus, most of these players don’t have money for Xboxes and Playstations, so basically street football is the only way to escape reality and be happy. These are kids that aren’t as easy to coach because they come from a totally different world that needs time and understanding and good guidance.

Maybe clubs or managers should take professional street players to work with those kids together with an 11-a-side player because we understand the kids; we speak their language and they respect us because they can identify themselves with us. It’s a long story, but this is my frustration, man! There are too many talented players who don’t get a chance because they are considered “difficult”. This is a waste of players, my friend!

What can you tell people about yourself? Describe yourself aside from football so I can help build context to who you are as a player and freestyle football icon.

Ha! That’s hard. I don’t like to talk about myself in that way. I just wish for people to check me out and form their own opinions. Then that makes me do the right things in life. I want to be an inspiration to kids who are in the situation I was in and let them know if you work hard from passion not pressure, if you want to accomplish something and you are willing to do anything for it – you can do everything you want in life.

Who and what influenced you to continue to play football and become the world’s best freestyle footballer? Do you have any favorite players or teams? Unique experiences that you would like share?

Love for the game, nothing more, and nothing less. I have many unique experiences, my friend, honestly, I can write a book! And maybe I will some day!

What is your favorite place to perform freestyle football? Do you feel Holland has the best freestyle footballers?

There’s no place like home. I feel happy in Amsterdam, and yes I’m sure Amsterdam has the best players. We beat any country out there! You can profile yourself on the internet but put your money where your mouth is, no other street team at the moment can beat the Amsterdam teams (not talking about Freestyle juggling).

We’ve been around the world and seen so many players and they are very good players, don’t get me wrong. But we created a new way of playing in the late-nineties and the rest of the world is picking it up since when, maybe ten years now? Because of YouTube, these players aren’t as creative anymore because they can just copy [a move] and paste it, but that has a downside.

Anyone can copy a trick and do it, but you have to know how when and where to do the move on the pitch – so don’t just do a trick because it looks fancy. Every trick has a purpose! But I’m sure the next generation will create a unique style and some other country will take over from Holland. Because street football is universal, it will move from country to country. Before Amsterdam, it was Brazil. Who’s next? I don’t know yet, but I’ll let you know.

Do you have any Freestyle footballer friends that have helped you develop as a player?

Yes, of course, even today I get inspired from the little kid who’s playing outside. I see his passion and that makes me go back to what I experienced and who I was when I was younger. When you get older, you get lazy, and getting lazy makes you get older! Young kids who develop crazy tricks make me want to beat them, so I also think about something else something even better. My friends keep me sharp; my competition keeps me on my toes.

My little brother, Issy “Hitman” Hamdoaui, is my biggest inspiration because I’ve never been as good as him and I’m competitive and I still want to beat him, so I stay on top of my game invent new moves because I can’t stand it losing. Besides him, any player on the planet helps me to become who I am.

What advice would you give young kids who want to become Freestyle footballers or just get better at football in general?

Don’t have too many expectations; just have fun until you need to be serious! Street football expectations give you unnecessary pressure. Just dream about it and let that passion and that love for the game becomes your drive to be the best you can be.

And for [any] move, try to understand the meaning behind the tricks you see and use them functionally. You should either be able to score, pass or have created space for yourself or a teammate, otherwise you just wasted a good trick!

By Jonathan Townsend.
Follow Jon on Twitter @jon_townsend3

Published by Jon Townsend

Jon is a long-serving writer for These Football Times and the Original Coach and is the author of the upcoming book "It's Just a Ball: Exploring the Complexities of a Simple Game". Jon is a supporter of Liverpool Football Club and AFC Ajax. Based in the U.S., Jon is involved in promoting grassroots football and specializes in player development writing and coaching. He is the co-founder of Year Zero Soccer, a non-profit grassroots football organization that is partnered with TFT. His work has been featured on the Guardian Sport Network, Inside Soccer, NSCAA Soccer Journal, White Lines Magazine, and Spartan Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @jon_townsend3

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