Penalized by the Penalty Kick

Penalized by the Penalty Kick

By: Jonathan Townsend

The clocks ticks closer to the 89th minute as the crowd swells with anticipation. The match is close with one goal separating the two sides but as certain as the ball is round, everyone can feel something is about to give way to the ridiculous. The center midfielder takes the ball off his back line, pivots to the right to dodge the challenge of the opposing team’s tired striker, and looks up the field. The wingers are in advanced positions with their boots on the chalk as the target man checks to the ball and the other striker runs behind in the gap the big man created. The libero, slots the ball between two baited defenders now left for dead as the opposition’s centerback lines up the striker as he collects the ball in the penalty area. Contact is made, the striker goes down, arms go up and the collective gasp of everyone in attendance mixes with cheers and jeers. The referee looks at his linesman, who himself wears a mask of uncertainty.

The ref, certain contact was made and the ball was touched, is not sure if it was by the laws of the game. The attacking team swarms the ref like a horde possessed as the striker continues to roll around theatrically on the pitch turf. The defending team pleads their innocence as the referee points to the spot. Penalty kick awarded. The armchair cynics and media box pundits have the luxury of replay after replay — from every conceivable angle. We know the truth. He, the referee, is unsure. The penalty kick is converted. Such is the way hearts break and results are made.

With the pace of the game increasing faster each year, there are really two games occurring simultaneously. One is played in the middle of park, along the sidelines and in the corners. The other, however, is a different game altogether. That game is played in the penalty area. As with any advantage that would and could be gained in a Premier League campaign that is arguably as close as it’s ever been from top to bottom, the decision to award and deny a penalty is the most tumultuous. This decision puts referees in a limelight more aptly made from the refracted rays of the sun. It puts repeat offenders who have been legitimately fouled at odds with their shady pasts and it puts the league’s darlings in the position to con the referee and the game itself.

The solution is simple. Instant video replay. The league is armed with a plethora of cameras at every football ground capable of breaking down the frames per second of the match as accurately as possible in high definition. The axis cameras allow analysts and pundits see what the referee cannot. These decisions do not need to be made based on assumption. And yet they are. Football is notorious for embellishment, both in the actions players take and the embellishment of the “human element” of the sport. There is something oddly romantic about using a referee — a mere mortal who is not a professional by trade as he holds a day job — accountable for the heaviest and most controversial of decisions.

With the stakes so high in the professional game, there ought to be an instant review process made by a fifth official and a team of video analysts who are all experts at dissecting the play in an effort to produce the correct call on the field of play. The problem is football loves controversy and it loves the unpopular or popular call, not necessarily the correct call. To many dissenters, this process would be considered too time-consuming, too intrusive to the natural ebb and flow of the game (as though a player writhing around for minutes at a time only to pop back up and continue play is not intrusive), and too robotic to aid the game. But surely, we live in a gilded age rife with plentiful resource and a bounty of on-the-spot knowledge that can help maintain a sense of balanced fairness in football. In sports like ice hockey, every goal is reviewed and sometimes calls are correctly amended. The same should be considered in football’s most popular league.

Additionally, players found to be cheating should be penalized with sin-bins or retroactive punishments to help eradicate the dishonesty from the game. There is no harm in reviewing a penalty decision and the correct call could be change the course of not only a single match, but an entire league campaign — for what it’s worth.

 

Crossing the Line

Crossing the Line

By: Jonathan Townsend

@jon_townsend3

March 18, 2014

Football is the physical manifestation of pure passion on the pitch. The modern game’s stakes are increasing at an alarming rate as the season becomes more unforgivable. The pressure on each player’s shoulders is matched by the blood pressure of the managers on the touchline. In recent weeks, a select group of managers have become the actual storyline the pundits and public find themselves talking about ad nauseam.

Make no mistake, every play needs a strong cast of actors and football is no different. The playacting on the pitch has somehow bled over to the charade on the sidelines. Alan Pardew’s moments (plural) of madness notwithstanding, the line is being crossed weekly by the managers of the Premier League—literally and figuratively.

In Chelsea’s recent collapse against an inspired Aston Villa side, José Mourinho proffered an excellent example of elaborate contradictions in his post-match interview. After the dismissal of Willian and Ramires, combined with the abject performance of his team that saw Fabian Delph score a nifty goal late-on, Mourinho found himself sent to the stands by referee Chris Foy. Since 2004, José Mourinho has always been the story—he’s a journalist’s dream as even the most off-the-cuff comment is loaded with fodder for a story. In the dying minutes of a match that Aston Villa were trying to kill off, Ramires lunged in and stamped on Karim El Ahmadi, resulting in a maddening scene of which Mourinho was typically at the epicenter.

Mourinho, surprisingly, refused to comment on any of those incidents. “I prefer not to speak. If I speak, I will be in trouble and I don’t want to be,” he said. “I don’t want to do something that we are not allowed to do. We are not allowed to speak about the referees. I don’t want to be charged with bringing the game into disrepute.”

The Chelsea manager, in saying “nothing” said it all as he commented at length about Chris Foy’s refusal to validate his decision to send Willian off earlier. This is hardly the first time Mourinho has found himself involved in a fracas, but in typical Mourinho fashion when asked whether he expected punishment. “Me? Me, or the ref? No, I don’t expect, because I did nothing.”

Tim Sherwood has also been at the forefront of more than a few criticisms in recent weeks. After his honeymoon period in charge of Tottenham Hotspur after the dismissal of Andre Villas-Boas, Sherwood has shown a temperament seldom seen or tolerated in the Premier League these days.

After capitulating against Chelsea, Sherwood openly called his players out for their lack of guile and application on the pitch. Such outbursts were the norm a decade ago, but today’s player has more protection and power than ever before. In the their recent defeat against North London rivals, Arsenal, Sherwood was shown in bouts of fury on the sideline as he threw his vest and stammered in seething rage. Later in the match, as Arsenal began to bleed the clock and it became clear that Tottenham had no fight left in them, Sherwood hurled the out-of-play ball at Bacary Sagna as the Frenchman leisurely walked over to take the ensuing throw not once, but twice. Perhaps it is ironic that Sherwood, a man who wears his emotions on his sleeve wears a garment sans sleeves. For all his faults, Sherwood’s outbursts and criticisms resonate south of favorable for the Englishman. Unlike Mourinho, Sherwood has neither the charisma, experience, nor the media on his side.

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All jokes aside, both men are deflecting attention away from their shortcomings on the day. Mourinho is the puppeteer of the media and mind games looking for a playmate now that Sir Alex Ferguson finds himself a silent witness to the collapse at Manchester United. In Arsène Wenger, Mr. Mourinho has found a stale opponent in the verbal jousting matches whereas David Moyes has no room to engage in anything more than trying to prove he can save Manchester United from even more embarrassment. Tim Sherwood is clearly a victim of his own temper, flawed tactics and of a side players whimsically bought with the Gareth Bale money who have shamefully under-performed under both Villas-Boas and himself.

Long gone are the days where managers could issue the public call-outs and hairdryer treatment to players. This generation is different. This Premier League is different. But, this is where the conundrum is most frustrating for many supporters and analysts. Shouldn’t players be held accountable for their poor public performances? Or, should all of the criticisms be reserved for a closed-door session away from the speculative eyes of the media and public capable of smelling a drop of blood in an ocean of controversy? In all honesty, this generation of players would probably quit football if they had a man telling them the brutal truth like John Sitton famously did at Leyton Orient in front of the camera.

Football, in many ways, has changed in ways many of us cannot relate to. Many a reader can remember a savage halftime shellacking at their own expense. Not ten years ago, the Premier League was a hard man’s league. Diving and simulation were present, but not at the rate it is presently. Tackles like the one Ramires committed were common (and still disgusting), but the likelihood a manager would end up on the field arguing the point was less than likely. The modern football manager is just as much a celebrity as the modern footballer. There is no place to hide, no comment goes unrecorded and no emotion escapes analysis and speculation. Some will commend emotional coaches like Mourinho and Sherwood (albeit they are very much different men and managers) for “taking the attention away from their players”, or their flawed tactics; and others will condemn their public displays as those of petulance and petty attention-seeking. But, like Paul Weller’s famously crooned in the 1980 hit, “That’s Entertainment” by The Jam, it surely is entertainment for the football-consuming world—and the show must go on. And where ever it goes, we’ll all be waiting.

The Coach’s Conundrum

The Coach’s Conundrum

By: Jonathan Townsend

@jon_townsend3

3/17/2014

The modern football coach is like a home builder. While not an architect, they are tasked with the construction, organization, and management of several pieces that must align to complete the overall project successfully. What’s the best way to build a house? Surely not by building the roof first then framing it and while we’re at it, go ahead and decorate the interior walls with a calming shade of paint. When time permits, go ahead and get around to digging, pouring, and setting a sound foundation for this glorious house.

This nonsensical scenario is a misstep into madness that could go on forever, but you get the point. In recent years, it seems this same wonky logic is how the modern coaching structure has matriculated at the grassroots level. Coaching is integral to the promotion and development of football for any nation. Obviously, without good coaching, the game suffers. But why is the ratio of qualified coaches to unqualified coaching such at such an influx of disparity?

The following are two examples (there are many more) of scenario-based routes to coaching that occur in both Great Britain and the United States – two nations struggling to implement a cohesive style of coaching and style of play at all levels and representations of the game, irrespective of FIFA ranking and league strength. The disparities are not as far off as one might imagine.

Coach A: This father of three children coaches his eldest son’s U10 matches every weekend and runs the training sessions twice a week. He’s motivated by his continued involvement and immersion in his team’s success and genuinely does his best to balance the playing time for every player. Coach A never played the sport at a competitive or high level, nor did he really show a candid interest in the game until his son gravitated towards football a few years ago, scored a few goals, and more importantly for Coach A – won a 4th place trophy.

But, despite his lack of playing experience, Coach A has an unrivaled enthusiasm and zest for each practice session and weekend adventure watching his team proudly and wildly gallivant around the pitch chasing a ball amid the shrieks and screams of the sideline mob rife with overzealous and overreacting parents all shouting, “Come on, Coach, what are you doing?!”, “Shoot the ball, son!”, and “You gotta call that, Ref!”

The excitement is mirrored by Coach A, who shouts the obligatory, “Just like we practiced, team!” while cursing through clenched teeth and holding his clipboard against his torso in the vice grip of his folded arms. Perhaps, due to a profound sense of parental obligation or a genuine new-found love for the game, but Coach A does his best to perform a very important role that requires him to wear multiple hats – both literally and figuratively.

Coach A has taken to reading coaching manuals, paying the requisite and exorbitant fees to earn the first of his coaching licenses (or badges) and has even stocked his closet with football clothing and a multitude of accessories that serve to validate his place on the sideline. The whistle around his neck serves as the shining pendant of parental power; the instrument of assertion and exacting directives culled from the three how-to coaching books that he has duly annotated by highlighting every section.

With any luck, his team will be in contention for another trophy this season. Each training session is a structured drill taken from a book verbatim. He holds the book open on the training pitch and recites the words on the page, telling each player where to go, what to do, how and when to do it. When the whole drill implodes, Coach A steps in and re-explains every detail while the players who aren’t involved in the drill become bored, the ones demonstrating become scared, and all of the players stiffen with inactivity. Coach A is trying his best and should be commended for his dedication.

The parking lot, full of overpriced SUVs and minivans, awakens as training ends. The parents emerge like cryptic shadows cast against the setting sun and halogen headlights as Coach A looks at his watch and sighs to himself, having tried in vain to accomplish something, anything, with his team of rowdy youths. The look on each parent’s face says it all. But it’s their shared murmurs that add pressure to Coach A.

He knows they’re judging him for the lack of playing time, progress, worst of all, lack of silverware they each feel their son is entitled to receive. Coach A collects the gear as the kids trudge off the pitch and then reviews his notes and coaching guides with a furled brow, “I set it up right. Where did it go wrong?” he says to himself. When the parents leave, he decides it’s safe to pack up his son and head home.

“I’m not doing this next season, someone else can…” he says to himself as he walks off the training ground.

Coach B: This gentleman walks up to the training pitch in a pair of old running shoes, a torn pair of sweatpants, a faded hoodie, and a slightly overgrown mask of stubble that he’s calling a beard. If you didn’t know him, you’d never suspect he was the coach of another crop of young players. A bag of randomly collected footballs, a few foul-smelling training bibs, some training discs, and an extra pair of football boots hang over his back – because someone forget their boots last training session. The players run around chasing one another as Coach B calls his flock in from the field. He looks at his left wrist, but remembers he forgot to wear a watch, so he pulls out his mobile phone to track the time.

Coach B was a player. A serious player whose career spanned a multitude of victories at the youth level before he went on to play lower league football becoming a professional journeyman of sorts; traveling from trial to trial, living off per diem allotments, and sleeping in the back of his car when a trial lasted longer than he could afford to stay in a local motel.

He did all of this while putting off the inevitable career trade off of basking in the limelight on the football pitch for tanning under the fluorescent lights of an office cubicle fulltime. Coach B has a network of resources from all around the country ranging from former coaches to former teammates still involved in football at various levels. On Sundays, he wakes up early staving off his mild hangover, to play in multiple Sunday league matches for three different teams.

Every now and then, Coach B measures what’s worse: the physical injuries that railroaded his aspirations of playing at a higher level, or the mental injuries inflicted to his ego and confidence by misinformed coaches lacking the knowledge to help players like him reach their full potential. These days, Coach B loves coaching. He cares about winning, but knows the U10 team he coaches doesn’t really understand what winning means in the larger context of life…yet. In fact, he doesn’t even regard the team as his team; he’s just happy to help.

His training sessions revolve around possession-based drills, competitive and repetitive training of basic skill sets, and small-sided games that his players beg him to participate in. The whole session is off-the-cuff. The exhausted players talk when he’s talking and he tolerates the chatter. There are no sprints at the end of training, but rather a, “Well done today, lads! See you Thursday!”

Coach B can’t be bothered to get his coaching licenses because each license becomes more expensive through progression and requires more classroom courses covering material packaged in hourly increments that he already knows with a standardized test at the end of the course. The aforementioned Coach A, however, has taken the classes. Every so often, the parents ask one another about Coach B’s credentials despite the obvious enjoyment and improvement of each player and their curious concern is valid.

After a defeat against a local academy team, a bold father taps him on the shoulder and tries luring the young coach into a conversation that will undoubtedly force the coach to justify his decisions, but it’s really an exercise in the anecdotal centered on the father’s own playing days. Coach B doesn’t know what to say because this parent isn’t interested in anyone but his own son and asserting his opinion on the young coach.

Coach B knows he’s not armed with a thick-stock paper coaching certificate. Every week, another father asks if the U10 team will play a ‘False Nine’ or a 4-3-2-1 on the weekend. Another will ask Coach B if he needs any help and, “Have you thought about playing my son in the center of the park, believe me, that’s his best position.”

Coach B sighs, knowing full well what he’s hearing is a mixture of ridiculous politics and back-handed reminders that he’s not really a coach without the licenses in their eyes, is he? “What the am I doing here?” he says.

So, who is the better coach? Of course, these two coaches are fictitious. Or are they? One issue with football development is the quality of coaching at the grassroots level. I’ve always considered a sport like football to be the lifeblood of a bleeding world and at the grassroots level, the game is dying. As the governing football federations and associations aim to educate and standardize the coaching models, more and more coaches find it increasingly difficult to stay current with the revolving model up top.

Comparing these two personas is surely an exercise in futility and reveals only what many already know – the route involved in coaching education has become stale and elitist while pricing many younger coaches out of the profession. And it’s not that coaches don’t want to be qualified, but rather they don’t see the system working at the senior levels and therefore, find it hard to validate what’s being funneled down to the grassroots level. Or, many see the popular foreign coaches come in, take over, and don’t practice what the “system” is preaching and selling the country’s coaches at lower levels.

Looking at the standard USSF coaching pyramid and the structure in place with The FA, this paradox is frustrating. In countries with a consistent track-record of success from the senior teams to the youth teams and a strong foundation of player development, the incentive and ratio of qualified coaches to players is evidenced by the quality on display year after year.

Perhaps both coaches are being assessed on the wrong criteria. Coach A is taking the standard route to enhance his coaching knowledge to educate himself with the game he’s learning to love, and performing his due diligence by following a complicated and expensive model. Whereas Coach A is learning how to be a student of the game, Coach B pulls from a wealth of knowledge as a player and has always been a student of the game.Of course, he’s at a different stage in life than Coach A, and therefore, sees little value in taking courses he might consider overly-redundant and in some cases, overkill on the basics of the game.

Plus, Coach B doesn’t have any children of his own yet, so he’s not subjected to balancing his love for the game with his love for his child, as Coach A must at this stage.

Some concessions have to be made to recognize a deeper problem with coaching education and retention: Firstly, coaching education should be rigorous and comprehensive in nature and it must balance classroom education with real assessment on the field. For example, in the US the coaching ladder ranges from the ‘E’ License all the way up to an ‘A’ License, with each tier requiring a waiting period of at least a year, costly expenses, and dedicated hours for each course. A coach may wave the lower levels if proof they played professionally or at an equivalent coaching level abroad is proffered.

The FA requires coaches to attend and go through a rigorous curriculum to earn FA Coaching Badges from Level 1 to the UEFA ‘A’ License. Furthermore, the availability and instances of these courses is sporadic at best with difficult offerings based on time and location making enrollment costly and difficult for many.

Secondly, the best players don’t make the best coaches and the “best” parents surely don’t make great coaches. Coaching is a vocation, one that many approach with expectations misaligned with reality to the point it’s far too late to save themselves and worse, their child, from burnout. Even at the highest level, former players who go directly into the coaching ranks seldom know enough to experience prolonged success. To them, the game is still fresh and raw. To them, it’s an exercise in vicariously living through the players entrusted to their care. To former players, it’s about winning first, development later.

Conversely, to many parents taking on a coaching role, it’s about winning first, development never – especially at the younger ages in grassroots football. Placing emphasis on competition and winning are two different things. Winning refers to winning a match. Competition should reference the development of the competitive elements that will aid a player such as shedding the fear of injury, losing a match or individual battle, getting “stuck-in”, striving to improve individually, and understanding that there are always better players and there’s always something to work on.

Thirdly, as a result of the standardized structures that governing bodies aim to trickle down from the top; coaches try to make kids play as adults. There is a profound difference between players in academies like: La Cantera, (Barcelona’s academy that is pre-La Masia), De Toekomst at Ajax, and La Fábrica at Real Madrid to name but a few of the football mills fostering young talent. These structures play by a different set of rules… literally. But for the kids at the grassroots level to succeed and enjoy the game, they need good coaches. Coaches who can afford and are motivated to continue their coaching education without being dovetailed into a one-size fits all model.

One problem is coaching retention. Many coaches simply cannot see the value in continuing their coach’s education curriculum when they don’t receive the requisite direction and funding from the top tier to the grassroots level. The overall governance of a nation’s football coaching guidelines shouldn’t be a hindrance, but with the vast amounts of cash on the top tiers staying at the top combined with the constant revamping of what works – what’s in and what’s out – coaches have less incentive to stay the course (pardon the pun).

There is much value to coaching education courses that expands beyond the pitch. Covering topics such as diet, concussion testing, learning how to organize and present material in an educative way to name a few, but the federations need to be more proactive with their involvement at the lower levels to explain and highlight these elements of the courses, and it’s simply not happening at the moment.

The game at the grassroots level is being gobbled up by academies attracting the best talent. Good coaches can concede when a player is better off playing in an academy. The route and motivation for coaches at the grassroots level has its complexities, but the fact remains that as more coaches burnout or walk away from the role, it’s the young players at the grassroots level who ultimately lose and the grassroots level is, after all, where the game grows.

By Jonathan Townsend.
Follow Jon on Twitter @jon_townsend3

Taking Football to the Streets — Part II

Taking Football To The Streets
Part Two
In part two of a special feature looking at taking football back to the streets, Jon Townsend interviews John Farnworth on his remarkable journey into freestyle football.

By Jonathan Townsend | 4 March 2014

Every footballer has their own story. Some are more akin to war stories of the jaded and faded who claim to have never received a fair shot or shake at glory. Others will tell you that they decided to pursue other avenues away from the sport. Still more will have their footballing fate decided for them through a series of events of glorious triumphs and failures.

John Farnworth, a freestyle football player who holds more than few Guinness World Records and is considered one of the world’s most entertaining and most-skilled freestyle players, has a story worth telling.

Much like Edward Van Gils and countless other street and footballers, skill acquisition for him required an innate desire to be the best player possible. What is compelling about John’s story, aside from his obvious skill, is his acknowledgement that his adventure is purely a result of his dedication to his craft.

He, like many players, harbored aspirations to play professionally, but unlike many of today’s young players, he became a student of the game. By reading and re-reading a skill book and rehearsing the movements and techniques for hours on end, John bridged the gap he sought to fill and didn’t give up on the sport. He simply found an alternative way to continue playing and making an impact as an entertainer and ambassador of the game.

Interview with John Farnworth

How did you start playing football?

I started playing football when I was about 8 or 9. Before that, I wasn’t really interested in the sport at all. It was my dad who took me to Old Trafford around that time that I started showing an interest. After watching Man United play I was quite inspired to go out and start kicking a ball about and it soon became a massive part of my life. Also, having two brothers helped as well and my family has always been interested in football. My Granddad played for Accrington Stanley and was offered a contract at Burnley before pursuing teaching as it was seen as a “proper job” at the time as there was no money in football.

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?

Yeah I did, when I was younger I used to go to watch Manchester United all the time and literally played football whenever I could. It was always playing on the street with my mates that I enjoyed most, though. I played for Preston North End Centre of Excellence for a few games and Preston Town team for two years, but around 14-15 years old I stopped playing football for a team and even stopped playing for school, as I stopped enjoying it.

A lot of the coaching was about winning and, in all honesty, I wasn’t bothered about winning. I just wanted to play and develop my skills. I started to enjoy practicing alone usually and this is what eventually led me to Freestyle. At around this time, I had seen a man named Simon Clifford on a TV show called, ‘Michael Owens Soccer Skills’ where Simon had a group of children who were better than Michael Owen at skills.

Simon had trained them up through his method taken from the Brazilians (which later became Brazilian Soccer Schools). Seeing this on TV inspired me a lot. These children where amazing! I was shocked at what they could do. They’d been coached in such a different way, what they were doing was exciting; almost magical and I wanted to join what they were doing immediately.

This experience led me to join one of Simon’s Schools in the Bolton/Manchester area, led by Brian Leach. Brian was brilliant, he taught me so much, the session was all about learning new skills and expression, and some of the lads there were amazing. We always did a bit of freestyle in the sessions, even though at the time it was called freestyle we just called it juggling. We’d learn how to control the ball on every part of our body. It was a lot of fun, but I started to get so much better from being inspired to practice every opportunity that I had. Not long after, I met with Simon who had some nice things to say about me.

We used to go over to Leeds where Simon was based and play games of futebol de salao (futsal) and work on our skills. The environment was very good, very much about learning as opposed to winning. Simon would always teach you in a way like a teacher would by actually showing you something that you could learn from.

I carried on practicing my skills, and a few years down the line in 2003 I went to the Nike Freestyle event in Manchester. At the time, I didn’t know what Freestyle was. I just went along, but I was amazed at what I saw, especially by I guy named Mr. Woo who was juggling the ball with his shins, toes, heels and soles in addition to performing some of the most breathtaking moves with a ball that I had ever seen. That was the day I found what I was going to do!

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?

Well that is hard to say but 1000’s of touches. I used to dribble to ball to school and back; even when I was younger I was fascinated with getting better and developing. I used to read Simon Clifford’s book cover-to-cover again and again, just in case I missed something, I would practice all the skills in the book every day. My mum and dad used to tell me to rest, but I could never sit still, it was training with the ball that almost gives me peace. I enjoy practicing, I love mastering things.

When I started more seriously training in freestyle I practiced in every possible opportunity, the same is true today. I always have a ball with me, just in case. I practice all the time it’s a never ending journey of refinement and improvement—it never stops. I believe whatever we are training for or doing in life never hits one big goal, you have to go on and see further each time you improve.

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 only goal as a freestyler is to be better than I was yesterday; I just want to make sure that I am guided each day by growth. I want to explore every facet of movement that I can to improve my art and transcend it. I’m sure freestyle will continue to grow and I hope it does. I guess the underground side is quite cool, but the more people see the benefits of freestyle the better.

I hope that those doing freestyle or interested in the art can learn to express themselves through the movement, learn from others of course but find within themselves their own style for that is what freestyle really is. I intend to take what I do to a larger audience I would hope that one day freestyle can be a part of the game of football – that coaches look upon what is behind the art to move the game forward. Football should be entertaining; fans and players love to see amazing skills and creativity and the more I look at freestyle, the more I see it connected to the origins of the game we see today.

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 think it is appreciated, but I think most coaches don’t see it as an activity that can help football. I have been lucky to work with top football players and it’s interesting to see them trying some of the moves. They are really interested with freestyle; it’s almost this new thing that they don’t know what to do with but they are still fascinated with it.

I want to change this and show how everyone can learn from freestyle whether it be for the game of football or to learn new moves for fun. I agree that it takes a lot of skill and practice and it is something that you have to spend time on. I think that mastering something is quite rare and almost overlooked in society as we have been inclined for the short gain or win for whatever reason.

Freestyle for me is about the journey to master something then keep going and going to see how far you can push it, when you do this you create something that is totally unique and it would be hard not for the mainstream to notice.

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.

That’s quite hard! Well I guess I am a very determined person, but I would say that my best quality is just curiosity. I am always curious of everything around me. I want to stay childlike and stay connected to that playful aspect within me. I love to read, write, take pictures and spend time with my family. I love to travel and take in new cultures and learn more about the world. I really like films; I want to learn from film in how I can connect more to people through what I do, especially today with the social media platforms and YouTube.

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

As mentioned previously, Simon Clifford has been a massive inspiration on my life and still to this day continues to help guide me on my journey. As a child, I was fascinated with Eric Cantona, he was amazing to watch. Also seeing Ryan Giggs as a youngster was inspiring and players to this day like Ronaldo and Messi make football such an amazing sport.

I am a Manchester United fan, since my dad took me to Old Trafford as a child I have always loved going to games. I don’t go as much now as I would like to do but I was lucky enough to see Alex Ferguson’s last game at Old Trafford. It was so inspiring to see what he had built, from the players to all the staff that works at the club; something truly amazing!

I feel like I have had many unique experiences on my journey so far, I have travelled to over 30 different countries so far which has been amazing. It was amazing performing in the townships of South Africa, I have been lucky enough to travel there a few times now and the people are amazing, whenever I did a show there the people went crazy I had never seen anything like it!

Also, performing at events around the world have been great, including a highly embarrassing experience when I went up to Kevin Spacey and said, ‘Hi, my names John’ he said, ‘Hi’ I said, ‘What’s your name?’ without thinking about it! He just said ‘I’m Kevin.’ I was so embarrassed, but he was one of the nicest humblest guys I’ve met.

Another amazing experience was completing the London marathon while keeping a ball in the air the whole way, it took me 12 hours, the day was amazing, but it was a buildup of training for six months that enabled me to do it.

What is your favorite place to perform freestyle football? What country, would you say, has the best freestyle football?

It’s so hard to choose. One place but being at the 2010 World Cup Final was amazing, performing at Old Trafford was a dream come true. Also performing at a private party for Ruud van Nistelrooy was a huge honour.

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

I mostly train on my own. I feel I am most creative when alone, but I train a bit with Richard Braithwaite, John Whetton, Abbas Farid and Dan Magness. They are all amazing freestylers in their own way with their own styles. I have also worked on events with them quite a bit which is always good fun.

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

The obvious thing to say is to practice! I know it’s what everyone will say but it’s the truth. I wasn’t born with any particular specialness that has allowed me to get good; I just did what I enjoyed. I only became good after years and years of practice when I started I wasn’t that good at all. I would also advice players to be their own coach, look at your own performance, look at both sides positive and negative and find the middle ground where you can develop.

I would say combine play or creativity with more serious training, I feel we [players] need to combine the two, not being too mechanical with a set belief or not being too playful where they will not get anything done. Personally, players should look, review and aim to be open to everything, but attached to nothing in everything that they do; this way you can progress and achieve amazing things.

It has been said that you have taught some famous footballers some of your moves. Can you share what players you worked with? Have you worked with any football companies to help them promote freestyle football?

Yes, I have worked with and met some amazing football players such as: Jay-Jay Okocha, James Milner, Joe Hart, Ashley Young, Chris Smalling, Antonio Valencia, Anders Lindegaard, Scott Parker, and Rafael Van der Vaart. I also met Ronaldinho years ago when I was doing a demonstration for Brazilian Soccer Schools with a few of the players. It was funny as he stopped and watched with a big smile on his face! The players I have worked with have been brilliant, it’s really strange at first but then you just realize that they are just lads wanting to play football.

I have worked with many brands across the world to promote freestyle and use freestyle as part of certain events. A lot of companies are recognizing freestyle as a way of engaging people, which shows its growth and that people are aware of it. I’m doing a lot of work on a regular basis with some big football brands and clubs.

Aside from asking some of football’s underground stars some salient questions, I also aimed to show readers that whether a player takes it upon themselves to get thousands of touches a day, play for hours on end, or finds some other method to improve their game, the onus of their individual improvement should ultimately rest on their shoulders. The end goal is to for young players to enjoy their football and recapture a passion for the game through simplification and, if nothing else, play for the love of the game.

By Jonathan Townsend.
Follow Jon on Twitter @jon_townsend3

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

The League of Shadows

The League of Shadows
By: Jon Townsend

Since its inception at the start of 1992-93 season, the Premier League has redefined the global branding of football. In a league known for its pace, power and competitiveness, the game has thrived with higher attendance figures, television monies and a massive injection of foreign finances and talent. The Premier League is, without a doubt, the most popular league in the world. The players gracing the pitches of the England’s top flight have both captivated global audiences and catapulted the league to the forefront of the modern sport’s market. In essence, the Premier League is a machination of ruthless beauty designed to showcase a league’s universal reach and influence, and it has become the juggernaut in the system for which it was designed.

The unveiling of the 2013 FIFPro World XI revealed more than the names of the world’s “best” players. None of the players on the list ply their trade in the world’s most popular league. Surely, this omission isn’t indicative of a possible lack of talent on display in England’s top flight, is it? It would be less than pragmatic to believe this, like many of FIFA’s competitions, is anything other than a popularity contest. The nominations, whether they’re derived from the players themselves or from one of FIFA’s bureaucratic selection committees, reveal the power of perception spliced with the voting masses’ conviction to rage against the machine that is the Premier League.

Many will hang themselves on the simple and elementary argument that the Premier League has world class players and teams. Of course it does, but the argument itself is mere conversation fodder in comparison to the reality that the Premier League is the Frankenstein nobody wants to tangle with or recognize in these types of competitions. The subjectivity flowing through the veins of such recognition-based ballets and galas suggests that the Premier League is too powerful for its own players to gain global acclaim. In comparison to La Liga, Ligue 1, or the Bundesliga, the Premier League makes it nearly impossible for the massive separation in the standings one sees in the aforementioned leagues. This fact alone makes the Premier League entertaining; but does entertainment equate to quality?

One aspect that the Premier League holds over most other leagues is the competitive nature of the league in a holistic sense. Many seasons find little separating the teams in terms of goal and point totals in sections of the table. The top four or five teams usually battle until the final weeks or day of the season while the relegation battle is both epic and powerful in its own intensity. Historically, in La Liga, Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga, the top teams tend to run away with the league creating a viable and visible platform for individual stardom to thrive. In those leagues, star power is more noticeable and praised whereas in the Premier League, the proclivity for the David’s to slay the Goliath’s is on display almost weekly. In European football, Premier League teams compete and win competitions with some degree of regularity.

Competitions such as the FIFA Ballon d’Or and the FIFPro World XI have merit and the Premier League should have some representation on the ballots if the league really is as good as advertised. The self-aware football-loving public can only imagine the type of hell prolific strikers like Luis Suarez and Sergio Aguero would presently unleash on defenses in La Liga, Ligue 1, or the Bundesliga. Sergio Aguero, for instance, bagged 74 goals for Atletico Madrid in 175 appearances while currently sitting on 48 goals in 79 appearances with Manchester City—perhaps suggesting he’s more clinical in a tougher league defensively. Each league has its loyal servants, and it’s possible the Premier League’s soldiers like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Ryan Giggs might have found more individual success playing abroad, it doesn’t detract from their quality as players and perhaps, their loyalty to the Premier League is a testament to its strength.

The world of football wants to see stars and it wants to see them shine brightly. In the Premier League, the talent is on display and the flair is there—but the focus is on the club as a collective. Those shining too brightly often leave for the Premier League (Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham, Arjen Robben, and Gareth Bale to name a few). Premier league players must be willing to bleed for their club and the league thrives off the numerous battles waged on the landscape of the Premier League table. In years where a clear frontrunner takes off with the league, the passion still exists and attention turns to the battle for European football qualification and of course, relegation. These elements of the Premier League are evident in all of Europe’s top leagues; the difference is those leagues are dominated by one or two teams—two teams that the league’s global image and vitality relies on. When Barcelona or Real Madrid loses to a smaller team in Spain, its bad business for La Liga. The same might be true for the Bundesliga and Bayern Munich, which is rightly considered to be one of the world’s best clubs.

For all its power, pace and its high entertainment value, the Premier League is the MMA octagon of football. It’s a league full of prizefighters, skilled tacticians, foreign flair, homegrown grit and loyalty—and they’re all battling at full speed week-in and week-out. To judge the quality of the league and the players populating it based on competitions like the Ballon d’Or (which was rightly awarded to Cristiano Ronaldo) or the FIFPro World XI is a fool’s game. These competitions are solely about individual achievement in the eyes of a biased group of voters. The Premier League powerhouse places emphasis on club success before that of individual players. There’s something remarkably powerful with La Liga pitting Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi—two of the most popular footballers on the planet—against one another. But that’s the ticket, those players are marketable as individuals on a level unseen in the Premier League.

Perhaps the Premier League garners more holistic power and popularity than Europe’s other elite leagues, but its focus on club success over individual player success is evident. When a club’s marquee signing leaves for another Premier League side, echoes of, “No one is bigger than the club,” are muttered into pint glasses and press conference microphones alike because, in England’s top league, it’s true. Unique elements seen globally such as the jostling for league position, the intensity of each derby, and effort each team displays, regardless of league standing, suggest that the Premier League faithful won’t admit they pay attention to competitions where players clad in fancy tuxedos partake in a popularity contest current Premiership players have no chance of winning. The biggest league in the world might be shrouded in shadow—but in terms of the league’s branding and marketing potential, the Premier League is the bright-shining signaling buoy used to guide other leagues daring to navigate the dangerous waters of world football.