The primary purpose of a football is to be put through a goalpost, but there’s a group of youngsters who do so much more with it.
Performing impossible feats of dexterity, they dazzle crowds with their ability to juggle and control the football, balancing it impressively with almost magical adhesion – this is the sport of freestyle football or urban ball.
A freestyler draws inspiration for their performance from breakdancing and their moves carry fragments of street culture.
Freestyle football’s popularity is catching up with that of traditional football and it’s all thanks to the social media boom in the last couple of years that has allowed performers a platform to showcase their skills.
It has already established its niche as a street sport and with breakdancing set to make its debut in France 2024, it brings forth the questions: are we ever going to see freestyle football in the Olympics too?
Also, why don’t freestylers make the transition into professional football?
FREESTYLE FOOTBALL AND THE OLYMPICS
Much like football, freestyling requires years of training and practice.
Even in professional matches, the likes of Neymar and Ronaldinho have been well-known for captivating fans and stunning opponents with moves a freestyler might employ.
However, Red Bull athlete and two-time freestyle world champion, Sean Garnier insists that freestyle football is a completely separate and independent sport and must be treated as such for it to secure its spot in the Olympics.
“In order for freestyle football to be taken seriously, it needs to be seen as a separate sport altogether because the only thing in common between the two sports is the ball, otherwise everything is different. It is really just a variation of football.”
“Football is more about scoring goals and defense, where as freestyle is more about creating tricks and stunts, and it is just more about putting together a seamless performance,” he said.
Garnier attributes the popularity of freestyle football to the decline in traditional sports and believes that an association between freestyle football and the Olympics will definitely lead to a symbiotic relationship.
“Recognising street sports is definitely a great way for the Olympics to become more inclusive. It will allow kids to take their passion for this sport to the next level by giving it a proper platform and will make it more visible,” Garnier added.
“Football may be considered one of the most popular sports in the world, but more than 11-a-side, you have more people playing on the streets.”
However, there are plenty of challenges and issues that need to be addressed before freestyle can make its debut in the Olympics.
THE CHALLENGE OF SUBJECTIVE SCORING
Besides its separation from football, freestyle is a fledgling sport and is all about artistic expression.
Therefore, unlike traditional sports, it isn’t about scoring goals and the skills can’t be quantified, which makes the judgement process very tedious.
“Freestyle is still a very young sport and has just been around for the last 20 years, so it’s still growing and as of yet, it doesn’t have a proper structure,” the freestyling sensation told Sport360.
The lack of structure is also the result of not having enough competitions that will make the sport as organised.
“Right now, the way the format works is that it’s a one-on-one competition of 3 minutes and each freestyler is supposed to perform three 30-second sets. The freestyler who does the best three sets wins and goes to the next round,” Garnier explained.
The main issue that arises is that the skills you see in a freestyle competition cannot be quantified and there aren’t many competitions that can help create a uniform point system that is in line with the spirit of freestyle football and complements the aesthetics of the sport.
HOW DIFFERENT IS A FREESTYLER FROM A FOOTBALLER?
A freestyler and footballer maybe as different as chalk as cheese, but as Garnier mentioned, the comparison is almost unavoidable because of overlapping foundational techniques and most importantly, the use of footballs in both sports.
While some freestyle skills and tricks, like a nutmeg or elastico, can come in handy in some situations during a football match, there usually isn’t enough time or space for players to express themselves artistically.
We caught up with football scout writer, Hasan Draz to give us a bit more insight into what he describes as a magical sport and further reinforced Garnier’s claims that freestyle is definitely a different avenue than football.
“Freestyle is an amazing sport and they are amazing performers, but a professional football match is not where they can show off their skills. Football is all about strategy; kicking and passing the ball with the intention to score goals,” said Draz.
In a football match, there is a time constraint that often requires players to make split-second decisions.
“Moreover, football is a team sport, whereas freestyling is a one-man show. While a freestyler can outdo a footballer when it comes to skills, in terms of stamina, endurance, and teamwork, he may find himself lagging behind,” Draz further added.
So, in the end, a freestyler and footballer are talented in their own right and besides fundamental similarities, the formats of these two sports involve a completely different set of skills and expectations.
FUTURE OF FREESTYLE
Once the challenges are properly overcome, there is definitely potential for the sport to be associated with the Olympics.
Garnier is pleased with the increase in the number of freestylers and the opportunities that are now available to them and wants to contribute in building the sport.
“I just want to do my part and create more opportunities for young freestylers and have more competitions in the next five or ten years,” said Garnier.
In order to popularise freestyle in other areas, the Red Bull athlete worked closely in launching a video game called Street Power Football.
Garnier also dreams of creating an academy to scout and hone talent in the sport that will help shape the future of freestyle football.
Until then, he tours the world in search of freestyling talent and to spread the reach of this expressive sport.