x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

How the streets bred football’s legends George Best, Pele, Maradona

A photography exhibition shows how grass-roots football remains a part of daily life around the world.

The Inside Street Football exhibition is on show at the Gallery of Light, at Mall of the Emirates in Dubai, and features pictures of people playing football on streets around the world. Courtesy Leocomm PR
The Inside Street Football exhibition is on show at the Gallery of Light, at Mall of the Emirates in Dubai, and features pictures of people playing football on streets around the world. Courtesy Leocomm PR

What do George Best, the former Paris Saint-Germain reserve player Iya Traore and some Saudi Arabian schoolgirls have in common? Not much, you would think, and you would be right.

Except for a love of football.

Best, like so many of the world’s greatest players, honed his skills on the streets of Belfast. Before him, Pele had done the same on the side streets of Sao Paulo. After him, Maradona in Buenos Aires.

Part of football’s enduring fantasy is this: the streets are where great players are made.

That mythology prompted nine Getty Images photographers – armed only with HTC One phones – in nine cities across Europe and the Middle East to go in search of a fresh perspective on football at its most basic level.

The result is Inside Street Football, a photography exhibition at Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre, which, over the past three days, has been showcasing unique urban spaces, from Dortmund to Dubai, in which the beautiful game flourishes. In the week that the all-conquering behemoth that is the Uefa Champions League returned to action, it is a reminder that, around the world, grass-roots football remains as much a part of daily life as taking the bus to school and commuting to work.

There is Traore, the king of freestyle football, who every afternoon gives visitors to the Sacre-Coeur Basilica in Paris an unexpected display of his ball-juggling skills. In Amsterdam, there is a rusting steel cage that has done service as a goalpost and makeshift locker room for 25 years. In Munich and Stockholm, boys and girls in trendy gear compete as equals.

Best of all are images of two Saudi girls with headscarves having a Friday kick about in Wadi Hanifah, proof that even in a country that bans females from playing organised matches, football finds a way where you least expect it.

Street football has a sense of anarchy, of freedom, that Jonjo Shelvey would be proud of. Forget formations and offsides. Forget holding midfielders and trequartistas. Forget tiki-taka. It is the final frontier of world football.

The exhibition’s Dubai section shows images of children playing in the Gardens of Jebel Ali, and in Safa Park, which remains one of the few outdoor havens for the city’s amateur footballers.

These days anyone taking a walk, or more likely driving, around the city’s newer urban developments would struggle to see any signs of street football.

Hardly surprising, as more and more car parks, the spiritual homes of street football, give way to high-rise buildings and shopping malls.

What Dubai and Abu Dhabi do have are plenty of football schools and academies, and ever more indoor sporting facilities. It would be churlish in the extreme to complain about such riches, but for better or worse, football, like much of urban society, has been gentrified.

In contrast, street football is a common sight in certain areas of the Northern Emirates. For example, impromptu matches still take place in the shadow of Al Shaab’s Khalid bin Mohammed Stadium in Sharjah’s Al Riqa suburb. The club’s, and UAE’s, greatest footballer, Adnan Al Talyani, who grew up on those streets, would no doubt approve.

For those familiar with Abu Dhabi of the 1970s and 1980s, street football was not just something you could choose to do outside in your free time, it was virtually the only thing you could do.

The unforgiving tarmac meant that sliding about was out. So you learnt to stay on your feet and rely on what skills you had, often producing better spectacles than the ugly tackle-fest that Southampton and West Ham United served up at the weekend.

But street football these days is literally being driven into the margins – two or three-a-side matches occasionally taking place between skyscrapers, perhaps, until an adult inevitably calls time on everyone’s fun.

The proliferation of organised football is a wonderful development. It is the great leveller, democratically giving every boy or girl a shot at improving their football skills. It is, whether the old-timers like it or not, the way forward.

But it really should not be the only way. The six-year-old boy or girl in an oversized Real Madrid shirt and shiny boots is being deprived of a footballing rite of passage.

Rocks for goalposts. Fifteen-a-side matches. The odd bruised knee. Goal celebrations that make Marco Tardelli’s in the 1982 World Cup final seem like a shrug of the shoulders. Tears, of course. And nature’s ultimate final whistle, the sunset.

On the streets, football always finds a way. Pele, Best and Maradona knew that. And so do Saudi schoolgirls.

Today is the final day of the Inside Street Football exhibition at The Gallery of Light, at Mall of the Emirates in Dubai.

akhaled@thenational.ae