Freestyle football: maybe you know about it already, or maybe you don’t. Either way, you’ve probably actually seen it or something like it being practiced, whether it be soccer stars Diego Maradona or Christiano Ronaldo on television, or just people mucking around at your local park.
Professional or casual, street football has been around for quite a while: it’s long been played in public squares and alleyways around the world. Like any sport or activity that is preceded by the word ‘street’, it involves taking traditional football and modifying its rules, limiting the space and upping the fun. Both freestyle football and offshoot games like ‘Panna’ are becoming mainstream, and now they stepping out in a big way in Melbourne, with the city later this month playing host to the inaugural Trick Star Soccer Fest.
Related to sports played in Asia, such as Kemari, Jianzi, Sepak Takraw and Chinlone, as well as to activities like Hacky Sack, juggling and rhythmic gymnastics, freestyle football basically consists of a person expressing themselves with a football, doing all kinds of tricks with all parts of their body. According to the Freestyle Football Federation (the worldwide body for the sport, also known as F3), freestyle football is “the art of creatively juggling a football”, and it’s remarkable what the best players/performers can do with nothing more than a ball, their skill and a whole lot of imagination.
Trick Star boss Paul Harvey is one of the biggest proponents of freestyle football in Australia. “Our tagline is All you need is a ball,” he says, “which is pretty self explanatory. It’s an individual sport that is very creative, healthy and requires dedication and commitment.” Harvey hopes that staging such events as the Trick Star Soccer Fest will eventually feed back and improve football as a whole. “In time it will see us develop more technical, unorthodox players in Australia, as this type of training is relatively new in Australia at present.”
Panna takes a different tack: it’s pretty much soccer played in a small cage. Either one versus one or three versus three, the game takes place in octagonal cage, with tiny goal mouths on opposite sides. Players can win by scoring more goals than their opponents, although the ultimate aim is to ‘Make a Panna’, which refers to playing the ball through an opponent’s legs and then retrieving it on the other side. This move wins the game instantly, no matter the score. It is this kind of inventiveness that makes the game both highly technical and exciting games to both play in and watch with two types of player on show.
“Panna has huge potential to be a very high participation sport, as it can be played by any footballer of any standard,” says Harvey. “It is a great training tool to bring new people into the sport, especially because people do not have to be part of a team to get started.” Harvey has set his aims high: “Our dream is to have a Professional Panna League on TV giving players another way to earn a living out of football.”
At the Queensbridge Square Amphitheatre on Sunday 7th April, Australia’s best freestyle performers will be performing tricks with a ball to music for their shot at winning the Australian title, and also to gain some World Ranking Points. If a player accumulates enough points then he or she can take their place on the F3 global circuit. On the day spectators can watch the competition. They can also participate in the Australian Panna Football Championships, as well as in casual Trick Star ‘Own the Ball’ coaching clinics.
Harvey sees Melbourne as the logical fit for this first of hopefully many freestyle football events. “Melbourne is the home state of the Oceania Freestyle Football Federation,” he says, “and so it is natural to hold this festival here.”