Sunday, August 20, 2006


Street Smart

Paul Gardner of World Soccer is not a scribe whose views I share on most issues; in fact, his constant Europhobic rants over the last few years have been the journalistic equivalent of severe tinnitus. However, his article in the most recent issue of the magazine, dealing with the manufactured “World Street Football Festival” which coincided with the World Cup, struck me as accurate and insightful. Sadly, there appear to be no links available, so I can only suggest you get yourself down to the newsagent and purchase this outstanding publication!

Gardner’s thesis was basically that the tournament was a misnomer and a fraud. The surface was artificial turf (public liability considerations, no doubt, precluded the use of a real “street”). The games were played in a mini-stadium, filled with advertising, assorted paraphernalia and, as Gardner noted with disdain, deafening noise from the PA.

“I experienced, in little more than an hour, a concentrated dose of just about everything that is taking away [football’s] purity and dignity – and, ultimately, its value,” was Gardner’s glum summary.

Of course, this sanitized, anodyne version of “street football” is simply futsal à la mode. It bears no relation to the improvised, yet fiercely competitive version of the game which, we are told, gave the likes of Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane their basic footballing education.

Those who chiefly ascribe the successes of nations such as Brazil, Argentina and latterly France to their development systems – and yes, you know who I’m referring to – tend to ignore the phenomenon of street football. And yet, in its pure, unsupervised form, it forces youngsters to find ways out of tight situations, it forces them to deal with less-than-ideal conditions, and it breeds a winning mentality (although it should be added, as a brief caveat, that it often appears to inculcate the various cheating techniques at an early age as well).

When I was living in France in the mid-nineties, I was always surprised by the large number of games that sprung up out of nowhere on the bumpy streets of the small towns. Cars did occasionally pass, but they treated the youngsters with understanding (the state of the roads often meant that speeds could hardly exceed about 30 k.p.h. anyway).

In many western countries, progress, in the shape of good roads and recourse to litigation, has meant the decline of street football. Lamentable, perhaps, but countries like France, where a structured youth system is on offer once the kids have learned their bit on the asphalt or cobblestone, represent something of a happy medium.

Certainly, the happy chaos of street football is a part of our sport to be cherished, and moves in some countries towards providing specific areas in major cities where kids can simply kick a ball around, in relative safety and at their own discretion, are welcome.

The “World Street Football Festival”, however, appears to have been just another gimmick.

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