To talk about street football is to talk about the beautiful game at its core. It has connotations of getting back to basics, of the sort football fans, and stars, used to play as kids – being banished outside to kick a ball around with friends or of playing one-v-one against a neighbour on your local estate into the wee hours, outdoing each other with renewed attempts at pulling off roulettes, rainbows and rabonas.

Indeed, that might give you an idea of what many people are flocking to Aalborg, Denmark to experience in a three-day street football extravaganza. That’s because teams from across the continent will vie to become champions in one of the beautiful game’s most chic and understated forms when the European Street Cup (ESC) takes place in the ‘Paris of the North’.

Some of the big nations taking part in the cult competition include Great Britain, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Poland and hosts Denmark. A big audience is expected to turn out as returning champions Belgium look to retain their title from the previous edition as a whole host of big names in the world of street soccer gather to compete – including veteran Edward van Gils, rising starlet Jack Downer and a Sean Garnier-coached French team.

The way the competition works is that there are three separate categories across both the men’s and women’s divisions: Panna, four-v-four and freestyle, with individual winners for each as well as one ultimate champion – whichever country has clocked up the most amount of collective points – being declared at the denouement.

Panna usually involves either two or four players facing off against each other in one-v-one or two-on-two partnerships in a compact cage. Regarded by some as the ultimate test of skill and ability to manoeuvre the ball in tight spaces, the objective is to score into your opponent’s miniature-sized goals, with extra points given to players who successfully produce a “panna” or nutmeg en route to scoring.

Four-v-four offers a more expansive game for street footballers to challenge themselves. Allowing for more ambitious combination play, there is more than an element of futsal to this incarnation of street football, but at its heart, it is primarily the best platform for teams who possess optimum chemistry to link up with audacious moves, fast-paced tricks and imaginative one-twos. It’s a speedy format where the ball moves from one end to the other with as much regularity as a tennis match.

Freestyle is undoubtedly the most confrontational and intense of all the categories, however, and encapsulates the spirit of street football’s individuality, pursuit of uniqueness and the celebration of stylised personality. Pitting players face-to-face in close-encounter one-v-one scenarios where a set time is allotted to each, freestyle is the ultimate platform for show-boaters, flaunters and confidence players to exhibit their trickery to a willing audience, normally to the soundtrack of booming crossfader DJ-set music and against a background of cheers, oohs and appreciative gasps.

Baseball caps, in-cage disses and theatrical mid-move provocations are all regularly served-up across each category as the spirit of this urbanised game comes to the fore, because while it’s primarily about holding your nerve under pressure, the main order of the day is fun mixed with a tantalising blend of charisma, credentials and charming chutzpah.

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It might not be the most mainstream strand of the beautiful game, but its undercurrent flow is part of the appeal that sweeps its admirers along in a wave of colourful, in-your-face excitement.

Great Britain head coach Kieran Beech, who is leading the team into battle in Aalborg, was a late starter in the game, but when he took a leap of involvement one night four years ago, for him there was no turning back. “I have been involved in Street Football for four years and didn’t start until the age of 29,” Beech tells These Football Times

“I had started skills coaching around a year early with Pro Skills Coaching and got a chance to be on a street course held by UK street footballer Darren Laver. I remember it vividly as it was a cold autumn night in Bradford, and that’s where I first discovered the sport and it left an immediate impact on me.

“The way Darren could manipulate the ball fascinated me. I had truly never seen anything like it live in person. His speed and reactions were second to none, I immediately implemented aspects of the coaching and saw it have positive effects on the children I worked with and brought so much more fun to the way I coached – I had already changed so much since working with Pro Skills – it just fit with me more.

“I was still rather basic in skills at this point, though, and after an event with Darren and a further coaching course a few months later I decided to practice a little more myself to show the children the skills. I became hooked on the training and just started to absorb videos on the sport.”

While winning is the end goal, everyone always remembers to have fun along the way. The camaraderie and joy evident in the atmosphere and on the faces of the participants speak of an intense love for the trickery and showy nature of squaring up against an opponent in the heat of battle.

As Britain Beech puts it best, it’s the ‘community’ that attracts so many people to take part and stay involved. “We are all highly competitive but unlike regular football, we don’t hide the secrets of development strategies from each other. On a whole, the entire community largely all support each other, as our passion for the game unites us and, in the end, we realise that we all want to pass on the knowledge of the sport to others, so we can grow the game.

“Secondly, it’s the creativity you can have with the ball [that attracts me]. There truly aren’t any limits but those you place on yourself, and once you begin to break those boundaries of what you and others deem impossible, you truly open yourself up to a whole range of possibilities. This drives you to constantly want to be better and to keep improving.”

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That’s because the loud and brash culture of street football is only one side of things. Players applaud each other’s skills, bravado and ingenuity – it’s one of the rare football platforms where the competition is fierce but the respect is stronger. There’s a friendly rivalry to it all, so it’s little wonder the ESC has been going strong since it was first founded in Antwerp in 2011 and is the only major tournament in the world that combines all three of the core street disciplines.

In terms of the social media audience, the ESC has racked up over 50 million views on YouTube, over 100 players, coaches and squad members are scheduled to attend the three-day event, plus an audience of close to 10,000 is expected to turn up throughout the few days to cheer on the action, drink in the buzz and celebrate a return to the rawness of football in Aalborg.

That isn’t that surprising because, when you think about it, street football is where all the very best stars start out. One look at this famous Johan Cruyff quote tells you everything you need to know about why competitions like the ESC are not only vital to the sustained health and continued popularisation of street football itself, but in turn why they feed into the improvement of the 11-a-side game, too: “I trained 3-4 hours a week at Ajax when I was little, but played 3-4 hours every day on the street. So, where do you think I learnt football?”

Ronaldo, George Best and Wayne Rooney – even a modern starlet like Manchester United and England striker Marcus Rashford – all received their first formal education playing football on the street. The games they played, the forms those exercises took and the reason they kicked a ball in the first place might be a million miles from where they ended up, but those were their first steps on the path, and it’s easy to understand how it was the love for those initial, innocent tip-toed paces that gave them the momentum to keep going.

Beech is of the opinion that street football is increasingly undervalued and says that there are lots of lessons it can teach – particularly to coaches of the 11-a-side game. “It’s massively undervalued”, he says. “I feel it’s also largely misunderstood by most coaches. We truly don’t have many technically gifted coaches in this country that lead skills programs. It’s all still rather basic, and I think many of the skills and quick pieces of footwork [street footballers] do are lost amongst the current crop of coaches.

“There are also little elements of play that aren’t easily recognised until you begin to understand and play the game yourself. As street players, we have the ability to make our opponent move with us – instead of a defender guiding us, we guide them. We use little touches, fakes and trips to draw in tackles giving us the space we require to strike – score a goal, make a pass, beat a player or get a panna.

“Through learning to play the one-v-one game, you massively improve your own ability to defend, you learn to spot skills and steal possession more easily. Many also just see the one-v-one game but haven’t seen the other elements such as three-v-three and four-v-four. We don’t just show creativity with skills, we show creativity in possession play, learning to pass and control the ball in so many different ways.

“We don’t limit ourselves to the side foot and receiving on the back foot as often can be the case still in coaching – seriously, I still see high-level coaches enforcing such restrictions on players. Many claim that they want to see highly skilled and creative players develop that show excellent decision-making skills but miss the way these players develop. It isn’t a by-product of coaching, it has to be developed through play and discovery.”

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The imagination of street football, the way the natural levity of a youngster’s play lends itself to it, or rather used to lend itself more often, is what separates it from the high-pressure, tension-filled world of professional football. The stars of today might seem as though they’re enacting a childhood fantasy by getting to kick a ball around a field, but the rigidity of academy football, day-in-day-out planning, training, tactical nuances and strict diets all mean that the business of football has stripped away so much of the fun to replace it with unbending regulations and direction.

Even the aspiring footballers coming through the system from grassroots up nowadays spend more time listening to coaches and being subjected to philosophy changes made across the board than they do gaining an education with a tattered ball and jumpers for goalposts. Some will say that it’s a necessary evolution – and in many ways it is – but something is undoubtedly lost along the way. Which is why the ESC deserves the platform to let football expression shine.

The format of 4v4, immensely popular at ESC, is not a new concept and has its roots in the Dutch way brought to the fore in the 1970s and is even now being used by the likes of the English FA and the FAI to develop a more fun, less restrictive way of teaching kids how to play precise passes, move the ball around quickly and inventively as well as how to defend through pressing and improved positioning.

A lot of the academies, particularly in Britain, might distance themselves from anything other than demanding coaching and intensive lessons that are taught as much through instructed stoppages in play than they are through allowing the players to naturally dictate the pace and rhythm of sessions.

However, the ESC proves that young players and fans are crying out for more liberating, open-ended showcases and spaces – where the players train and work hard to gain entry, but also one which favours a return to the underground of football, getting under the skin of the game to reveal something a little less polished and a little more unfettered, gritty and bold.

Street football itself is a space that, while potentially beneficial to the more mainstream game, breeds its own selection of superstars and has seen an original culture spring up since the 1990s that has grown in popularity in spurts here and there.

It has a lot to offer the development of the 11-a-side game, for sure, but it’s not up to street football to look after their welfare. The positives it can offer them will need to be actively sought out by the coaches, academy managers and football philosophers alike, but street football is an entity all of its own.

After all, it’s only right and proper it looks after itself first and foremost, especially if it wants to continue growing in popularity, attract more players and evolve into a thriving sport that can still offer a diversified option to the orthodox one in years to come 

By Trevor Murray    @TrevorM90