“I was in India back in 2009 for one month and traveled around the country. I remember one moment in an indoor hall where we had a big jam together with Indian freestylers which was a very special moment because I remember how surprised I was.” – Rickard “Palle” Sjölander
Football, or soccer, is possibly the second most popular mainstream sport in India, after cricket. The exposure to and awareness of football in our country is in no way insignificant. Freestyle Football in India, however, started to gain momentum only towards the second half of the 2000s. The following decade brought with it an upsurge in the popularity of the sport in the country.
What is freestyle football, you ask? It is the art of expressing through the body and the ball, moving in tandem with one-another, performing nifty tricks while maintaining balance, coordination and finesse. Want an example? Here, watch the video.
The global beginnings of freestyle football as a sport and art form can be attributed to Diego Maradona, international football legend of the 80’s & 90’s, the first to perform freestyle tricks for a worldwide audience. Inspired by Maradona, South Korean footballer Woo Hee-Young was possibly the first to make a career out of freestyle football. And yet, some key foundational moves of freestyle football today can be traced all the way back to 20th Century circus performers Enrico Rastelli from Italy and German juggler Francis Brunn.
Recognition of the art of freestyle in this part of the Indian subcontinent, as in the rest of the world, came about at the turn of the new millennium when Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho starred in Nike’s Joga Bonito commercials, alongside the likes of Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo, and Adriano, showcasing their skills with the ball. It has taken over a decade since then for freestyle football to be recognized as an organized sport in India.
The primary catalyst to the popularity of freestyle football in India has been the internet. Kids would watch videos on the internet and emulate the moves they saw their idols perform. Young gun Saquib Amiri, who ranked 2nd in the May’17 edition of the All India Freestyle Competition held in New Delhi, describes his first encounter with Ronaldinho’s freestyle videos, “He was pulling off some impressive tricks. I watched the video and thought to myself, I can do it. That was it. I went out, started practicing the same trick. And that’s how I got into this beautiful sport.” Saquib, from Mumbai, holds the 56th place on the International Freestyle Football Ranking List, at the mere age of 19.
Satish Sean, who came to limelight in 2014 through the Red Bull Street Style city qualifier, has a similar story to tell, “To improvise new acts I would follow most of the moves from international freestylers through YouTube.” An entirely autonomous process of self-expression, freestyle does not come with any set of rules or boundaries. In fact, it only widens the scope of creative output. Satish’s unique style involves cap-stall tricks and bottle tricks. “Bottle tricks and cap stall tricks were some objects that I used to incorporate into my routines. I wanted to be different from other freestylers and just tried incorporating these simple objects into it,” adds Satish.
A secondary factor in the meteoric rise of freestyle in India has been international exposure for football athletes representing the country at cross-continental tournaments. The freestyle football community in India is somewhat of an offshoot of the larger football community in the country, although the two sports are entirely different, the only common element being the ball itself.
“I was around 16 or 17 years old when I was representing India in Gothia Cup in Sweden. I was playing football and over there I saw these two guys doing insane tricks. I used to think, ‘I’m a football player, I can do everything.’ But when I started to juggle the ball and try a trick which I saw, it was almost impossible for me. They both are so different. I used to think being a professional football/soccer player is the last ultimate thing. But then there was more to it. There was a different side of football,” says Mumbai based international freestyler Archis Patil.
Archis Patil, popularly known as ‘Archis Crispy’, is the Indian Guinness World Record holder for the most number of shoulder spins in a minute, completing 63 rolls in 60 seconds in 2011. He is also marked down in the Limca Book of World Records for the most number of consecutive side head stalls in a minute, completing 96 stalls in 60 seconds in 2012. Patil has previously made use of television platforms such as India’s Got Talent and Roadies X2 to promote freestyle, giving the Indian audience exposure to a relatively unknown sport.
The upside to a sport as young as freestyle football, especially in India, is that it allows ample scope for experimentation. The need to leave a mark on an uncluttered history of the art form can be motivation enough to push physical limits and religiously work towards skill-building. Aarish Ansari, Guinness World Record holder for the most number of football crossovers in 30 seconds (completing 58 crossovers), discusses the labour that goes into perfecting the art of freestyle tricks, “I have made it a point to train every single day. I take offs only if I am injured or too tired. I meet other freestylers to try and learn from them. Meeting other freestylers is the best way to improve yourself.”
Aarish is the Indian representative to the Asian Freestyle Football Federation as well as the World Freestyle Football Federation, the official governing bodies of freestyle football in Asia and the world respectively. As representative to these Football Federations, he is responsible for developing and promoting the sport in the country. Nevertheless, Ansari humbly emphasizes upon the role that every single individual plays in the growth of freestyle football in India, “It doesn’t really matter if there is a federation or not as long as you are working with the community and helping it develop. A federation does give the sport a professional look but at the end of the day you can also be just one person who is working towards the progress of the sport and have a lot more impact on the community.”
The Indian Freestyle Football Federation was set up in 2016, giving the sport an official governing body, a step up from its underground status. The organisation works under the guidance of the World Freestyle Football Federation, which will hopefully bring about the necessary exposure that the Indian freestyle community needs. “It’s a bit easier to become a professional freestyler in other countries. They have better training facilities, better media exposure, and of course greater opportunities in terms of stage performances or brand sponsorship. All of this works as a motivation to keep pushing the boundaries and level of their skills,” says Saquib Amiri.
Although the level of skill and degree of accomplishments in India is lagging behind the international standard, Indian freestylers are diligent about staying updated with global affairs of the sport. Thanks to digital media, international freestyle legends have unknowingly played an active role in inspiring local freestylers achieve global recognition. Freestyle pioneers such as Paweł Skóra, Palle, Andrew Henderson, and Séan Garnier are arguably the most celebrated freestyle giants in the Indian peninsula.
Nicknamed the “godfather of air-moves”, Swedish freestyler Rickard “Palle” Sjölander is credited with having invented many lower body tricks performed by freestylers today, while Paweł Skóra from Poland is revered for developing upon those tricks.
In conversation with 4Play about his experience in India, Skora remarked, “Everything was so different for me: culture, food, clothes. It was an amazing experience for me to discover everything. I have visited 32 countries and India is one of the countries I remember the most as an amazing country. The audience were very happy. They were screaming for the whole show and it doesn’t happen to me very often.”
Pondering over the callous attitude towards freestyle football in relatively developing nations, Skora says, “I think this is a problem you can see in many countries. Freestylers should try to organize more tournaments. Thanks to tournaments, more people will see freestyle and it will get recognition. Also make more videos and post them everywhere (for example use some big Indian websites),” adding, “the level of freestyle skills in India is quite good and it increases.”
Indian prowess in the art of freestyle seems to have left a similar impression on Palle. “Any person involved in building the football freestyle scene or any other underground sport deserves respect,” Palle told 4Play.
Offering an astute observation about the gender disparity present in the sports industry, Palle says, “I’d say that female freestylers are well treated on meets and similar occasions. Unfortunately, it’s not as many females as males, but that doesn’t mean that the level is low. Quite the opposite, the elite females are at a really high level and I hope it’ll stay that way!”
The sports industry is generally plagued with the debate of age vs ability. Palle adds his bit to the discourse. “In any physical sport, age does matter and particularly in freestyle! I’d say that the earlier you get your body used to all awkward movement patterns, the better. I also know a few that have started practicing freestyle as adults and still reached good levels!”
The one and only principle that governs freestyle football, globally, recognises the simple fact that all you need is a ball. The scope of exploration and experimentation is boundless in such an arena. Pioneer of lower-body moves, Palle himself is left dumbstruck by some of the acts of the younger generation. “What the top freestylers (of the new generation) are capable of blows my mind away every time I see it. Especially when I attend a competition and see what they can do live, which are tricks and combos I never imagined would be possible to do in a competition or performance,” says Palle.
The accomplishments of the current generation of freestylers have afforded their successors the luxury of formal training. Multiple academies have cropped up across the country offering courses in freestyle football, also doubling up as a source of income for experienced freestylers. Such a step can only be a sign of progress. “The previous generation was dependent on YouTube, which was a great way to learn things. But having someone to guide you personally is way better. We know the things that we did wrong or could have done better. We try to teach students not to repeat our mistakes, train in a much more efficient way, and tackle the difficulties in a technical manner,” adds Ansari.
As of today, the scope of making it big with freestyle is tremendous. As late as 2011, nobody was a full time freestyler in India. Cut to 2017, it has become a full fledged career for many freestyle artists. The experienced seniors are now setting the benchmark for newer generations to draw inspiration from. “Events bring in funds that help me sustain my living,” pitches in Satish.
Young athletes looking to take on freestyle football in the future, need only interact more with the community and regularly attend meets. Some of the best freestylers in the country today, have watched from outside the freestyle circle till just a few years back. Attending workshops and participating in competitions is another way of gaining exposure for the amateur freestyler.
A young sport like freestyle football will naturally embody a certain sense of urgency to bring about a change in the mass attitude towards itself. A hope, rather, that future generations will build upon the foundations of the first generation. Senior athletes are naturally supportive of budding artists, thus echoing a combined effort to have the world perceive, identify, and experience the high that is freestyling. To sum up in Ansari’s words, “It’s only a matter of time before this sport explodes.”
Author: Pritha Pande
Budding skier, theatre practitioner, and our in-house grammar guru, Pritha refuses to live life in pursuit of a singular profession. When not busy lazing around, she can be found ushering feminism into the 4Play office space.