Root causes

Remember when kids played football just for the fun of it? Ian Plenderleith looks at the website run by forward-thinking nostalgics who want to bring back those days, and at online homes for amateur players

As an original member of the “jumpers for goalposts” generation who learnt to play the game in the back garden, the concrete school yard and a bumpy field covered with cow shit, I’ve nothing but praise for a new UK site seeking to reclaim youth football from the hands of coaches and ­ambitious parents.

Give Us Back Our Game is the work of a group of parents and coaches concerned that the decline of unsupervised street and park games is taking all the joy, risk and skill out of football for young players, and that they can no longer develop naturally without being constantly corrected by a coach with a manual.

They promote the Dutch “4 v 4” model, which allows children more time on the ball and allows them to make their own mistakes and learn to trust their own footballing instincts, for kids under ten and the site is fast becoming a campaigning ground against the ugly, win-at-all-costs philosophy that is an indirect consequence of all the money now luring potential talent to the top of the game.

“We are committed grassroots coaches who are passionate about the beautiful game,” says the site. “There is no sponsorship or company behind this website, only a shared belief in giving the children back their game.” The 4 v 4 game encourages free play, creativity, “freedom to fail”, and liberal switching of positions.

As well as encouraging young people to enjoy the game, the site has also encouraged nostalgic mid-lifers to reminisce. “We didn’t have anything other than our dreams and a Wembley Trophy football which cost one book of green shield stamps!” writes one supportive correspondent. “We played in sunshine, rain, sleet, wind and snow. We played on grass, concrete, cinders, cobbles and even ice if it meant being able to play.”

Also taking the game back to its roots is the German website Hardplatzhelden (Hard Pitch Heroes), backed by kicker and Stern magazines, which offers amateur players the chance to send in grainy footage of their goals, saves or near misses to win competition prizes. The 2006 prize was being judged by a panel including Miroslav Klose and Oliver Bierhoff, with more promised for the new year, as well as the building of a database of amateur players’ finest moments. Entrants from anywhere in the EU or ­Switzerland can send in video clips.

“The overwhelming majority of German amateur footballers are fair players,” says the German-language site. “Hard Pitch Heroes is the site for players who love their sport and respect their opponents.”

The posted action takes place on asphalt, grass and indoor arenas, embracing any age and any standard below the professional game. Watching the videos (the filming is generally as amateurish as the play) gives you a great feeling for the game’s continued breadth and confidence in its survival. It’s not necessarily the goals themselves that make the site great, but the reactions to them, reinforcing the truth that all success is relative.

If someone scores a goal and no one sees it, does it count? Of course it does, even if only to the scorer. With this site, though, a few no-names have the chance to make a small but permanent mark for themselves, even if the unheard appreciation of an ­internet ­audience doesn’t quite add up to the howl of the live crowd.

But say you’re 50, fat and quit playing ten years ago, yet still harbour hopes that, by some medical miracle, you’ll manage to walk out on to the turf of your home club and play inside a 40,000-capacity stadium? Well, it’s not out of the question, but you’ll have to pay.

At Football Aid, you can bid for a place on the team playing in any number of matches staged by the charity, with the co-operation of League clubs, at stadiums throughout the country over the course of the year. After that there’s nothing to stop you going down the pub to talk about the time you turned out at Anfield and stuck in a late winner.

The site includes match reports, most of which take themselves a tad too seriously, but there are some good write-ups, such as the Sheffield United fan who was “confident my strict fitness regime of 20 Silk Cut a day and a gentle stroll in the Peak District every week or so would be the perfect preparation”. Sadly he was forced to leave the game after 20 minutes due to dodgy tendons, but he could still say he’d graced the Bramall Lane turf for the first time since a 1971 pitch invasion.

It’s hard to say what kind of a bid you’d have to place to guarantee an afternoon in replica kit strutting your gut in front of a doubtless empty main stand. But whatever you spend, you can at least console yourself that the money’s going to a good cause. Go on, you can’t stop thinking about it, can you? Two minutes to go and you’re clean through on goal at Old Trafford. And maybe, just maybe, Sir Alex happens to be watching from the stands… 

From WSC 24o February 2007. What was happening this month