x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The football tricks are the treat

Even if Cristiano Ronaldo performing one of these moves looks like showing off – possibly because everything he does looks like showing off – these tricks do have inherent football value.

Edward van Gils speaks to children during the Streetkings Football Academy session at the Dome@Rowhdat in Abu Dhabi.
Edward van Gils speaks to children during the Streetkings Football Academy session at the Dome@Rowhdat in Abu Dhabi.

If you bother to look, you can cull lessons from most anywhere, and certainly from the phenomenon of street football:

As small as you think the world has become, it's smaller than that.

Edward van Gils and Issy Hitman, those famed, nomadic street-football mavens, explored Singaporean streets one day some years ago.

On the other side of the world from their Netherlands, along one of their usual urban expeditions to eyeball what's happening on concrete or grass or turf or sand, they came upon both one cluster of "kids" and one wow.

"We were walking around and then we saw these kids playing and we just never thought kids would be playing some of what we do," Van Gils said on Sunday in Abu Dhabi, where he alighted with his involvement in the Streetkings Football Academy that kicked off this week.

"We never thought people would be doing our tricks. We realised, like, the internet and YouTube is, like the biggest media ever."

The "kids" ranged probably from age 16 to the early 20s, said Van Gils, 35. They played on a nondescript patch of artificial turf. One girl wore a huge, memorable smile.

"We were talking to each other: 'How is this possible?'" he said.

There's no shame in learning from someone younger than yourself.

You might wonder if someday soon humanity will run out of clever new things to do with two feet and one football.

Van Gils suspects that day is not nigh, even if he is unsure about forever. (All of us are.) He likens it to a fresh record time in running events; everyone reckons it unbeatable until somebody comes along to undercut.

He tells of 10 years ago in Canada. There he arrived, a known master of the akka, the typically airborne version of the "flip-flap" or "the snake" or "elastico", the outside-of-foot, inside-of-foot move which Ronaldinho popularised. Still, he always saves room for amazement.

"Wow," he said, recalling his first observation of his present-day colleague Hitman doing the akka 3000, the complicated akka with a mid-spin touch of the ball with the heel or calf.

"I didn't see it coming," Van Gils said, and it blew him away, and to this day, he will not teach the akka 3000. "That's just my respect for him. People ask me if I can do the 3000, and I just say, 'No.' It's my way of showing respect."

Besides, he said, the young tend to cure him of complacency. "It's like, 'Oh, I have to create something, too,'" he said.

As parents dropped off Abu Dhabi youth at the Dome "And another thing, the freestyle thing, I never imagined it would be this big.

"We started freestyling when we had nothing to do … These kids just picked it up and this is like a subculture, got out of control, the commercials and everything."

Even if Cristiano Ronaldo performing one of these moves looks like showing off – possibly because everything he does looks like showing off – these tricks do have inherent football value.

"Confidence," Van Gils said.

Elaborating: "If you have good skills, you have confidence, and then your confidence shows on the pitch."

This dovetails with his wish that somebody who learnt something at the academy will grow to become somebody on some European football roster, as was Van Gils for AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch league. Street football, he said, "makes people happy, gives kids confidence, not only on the pitch but out with their friends, wherever".

In fact, freestyle football has mushroomed enough that, Van Gils said, some people perform the moves expertly yet decline out of lack of interest if asked to play good old football.

He aims to meld, to stress "the meaning behind the move, which is very important. Everybody can do the move, but you have to know when and how to use it".

Every generation simply must express itself; why not embrace rather than resist?

Van Gils notes that old footage shows Pele doing the akka, with variations proliferating ever since.

And so the 21st-century street footballer ventures into a football planet, eyes wide open.

"It just attracts me," Van Gils said. "I'm someone who cannot sit in the house for three hours. I just have to go to this" – or that – "outside court."

It's like a "magnet," he said, the magnet nowadays pulling clear to Singapore.

cculpepper@thenational.ae