When you read what the world's best players have to say about street soccer you might understand what I mean.
"I spent a lot of time training at Gremio. After training I went to play futsal. After that I'd play with my friends in the streets and when I got home I played with my brother. My life is football and always has been."
"Everything I have achieved in football is due to playing in the streets with my friends."
"I guess we were potrero (waste ground) children more than anything. If our parents were looking for us, they knew where to find us. We would always be there on the potrero, running after the ball."
"Every time I went away, I was deceiving my mum. I'd tell her I was going to school, but I'd be out on the street playing football. I always had a ball at my feet. In Brazil, every kid starts playing street football very early. It's in our blood."
"I'd make for a piece of waste ground opposite our house, where the boys from the neighbourhood gathered for a kick-about. Coats would be piled for posts and the game would get under way. In fine weather it would be as many as 20 a side, in bad weather a hardened dozen or so made six a side. We didn't need a referee. We accepted the rules of the game and stuck by them. It taught us that you can't go about doing what you want and if you don't stick to the rules, you spoil it for everyone else. Those games prepared us for life. When I wasn't playing football with my pals, I'd play by myself. I had a rubber ball I spent hours kicking against the backyard wall."
"I am grateful to my father for all the coaching he did not give me."
"It's all down to street football."
When I read these statements, I can only agree and silently wonder.
I also played street soccer. I do obviously not belong to the top players in the world. Far from it.
But I do remember that those street soccer games were intense, many roughed up, bloody knees, if you know what I mean. Not from vicious fouls, but from hitting the concrete after an innocent tackle.
Many tears were shed, no adults there to wipe them away.
At the same time triumphs were had after someone scored between the makeshift goal posts made of school satchels or sweaters.
By now you know that this pick-up game was on our way home from school....anywhere on the sidewalk, somewhere in the heart of Cologne. The kicking object was usually a tennis ball, and if that one disappeared into an open window of a spring cleaning household, a stone would have to replace the ball.
When we finally arrived home, I am sure every mother gave their offspring an earful about the ruined shoes from kicking a stone, the bloody nose or knee, the forgotten sweater which was probably still on the sidewalk imitating a goalpost, and of course because of the late hour we arrived on the doorstep.
Then it was time for a clean-up, a snack, and then homework. And guess what: then it was time for soccer in the park....until dinner. No adults, except for those passing by. They watched us play and got a kick out of the energy of us playing. Players, as I remember, were never concerned about age difference. We all pretended to be superstars. We played with even sides but sometimes, when weaker players arrived to participate, they were allowed to use more players.
Some belonged already to a youth club, others only played school soccer and most just enjoyed the game, may it be in the snow, rain or sun. Of course we also made sure we saw our soccer idols play, either with our dads on a weekend pro fixture or on the television, black and white, of course.
Don't stop me...I will go on, because I am falling into the trap of nostalgia. I am definitely a proponent of street soccer, but I can see also, that those days are bygones. Can you imagine the scenario I described above nowadays, on the streets in downtown Toronto? The walk home from school would have serious implications. The stone 'soccer ball' would probably hit a parked vehicle, or worse, a passing one... and then what? The tennis ball ending up in someone's home, perhaps on a dinner table or in a pot on the stove? Forget roughed up legs and noses...lawsuits would be on the rise.
Also, as romantic and innocent as street soccer seems to come across, there were bullies in the olden days. Yes, in those days each street soccer game would have the odd bullies. Mostly we learned how to deal with them as a group. Sometimes we would just walk away, other times we would gang up and 'fix' it in the game. Mostly, like verses from the bible, the rules of soccer dominated bullies and weaklings alike and all was fine playing the game without adult referees. Street soccer also had some really cruel tendencies. For instance, a good pal of mine, not a ferocious player like others his age, was left out of the game. Let's say 'natural selection' took its course. He still loves the game.
We were about 8 10 years old then. We marked the fields with utensils, branches, clothes or whatever. The field size seemed always appropriate. We changed it instinctively, depending on the numbers of players. If a few needed to go home, the field size shrank without the influence of adults.
Now that I told this story, I cannot see the 'real' street soccer game unfold in our times.
Spontaneous outbursts of kicking the ball around for fun just won't happen. Not in Toronto, not in North America. It remains the modern coach's task to simulate the conditions and encourage free play. The way street soccer was played then is not possible anymore. Children are influenced by too many other sports, games, movies, music.
So modern coaches must first motivate and instil the love for the game.
The responsibility unfortunately lies with the adults.
Some coaches have had success experimenting, by introducing one day in a week, when their players can choose what they want to do at practice. The players are on their own, in a safe environment with the coach standing by, observing.
As I said at the start of this article, a lot can be said about street soccer.
A lot can also be said about the superstars whose statements I quoted.
I believe it is a myth that street soccer was the secret to their success.
Each one of these players has qualities that are necessary to become a star. If you don't have those qualities, even street soccer won't help you.
Come to think of it: The other day, on a warm Sunday morning in Montreal, I saw many pick-up games in small parks all over town. But wait a minute! Who were those people playing? They surely were not kids anymore. In my estimation the youngest one might have been 18 and the oldest one 50 years of age.