We’ve all seen a football freestyler at some point, outside of grounds on match-days, providing half-time entertainment or even on television. I’ve always wondered who these men and women are, how they got into the freestyle world. I spoke to Alex Callaghan, one of the country’s leading proponents of freestyle, to find out more about the world.
“I don’t really have much of football background to be honest”, explains Alex. “I used to play five-a-side with my mates and whenever I was off the pitch I would just mess about with a ball doing tricks, that’s where I started really”.
Freestyling wasn’t just an expression of Alex’s love of the beautiful game though. This particular freestyler exists where football, free-running, art, breakdance and performance converge.
“There was a Nike advert with Ronaldinho years ago, where he was doing lots of tricks. That really stuck with me and I tried to re-create those tricks when I was messing about at fives”. It was the buzz that Alex got from finally pulling off some of Ronaldinho’s skills that made him pursue this new-found past-time.
The now 33-year-old Edinburgh native began to research freestylers as he honed his abilities. “There is a guy called Touzani, he is like a pioneer of the freestyle scene, I watched some clips of him and it really inspired me to get into it more.”
I got a real buzz from the creative process and trying to create tricks and skills that nobody else was doing.”
What started as a just messing around at the side of five-a-side pitch soon became something of an obsession for Alex. As the scene grew he was given an outlet for his passion in the form of competition. “I started entering into competitions and as the sport has grown, the competitions have become bigger.”
The rise in popularity has seen the Freestyle Football European Championships become an annual event hosting over 100 competitors from all over Europe. “The scene is really big in certain countries”, Alex explained. “Poland for example, it’s just massive there, Pawel Skora is Polish and he is a legend of freestyle, a real pioneer for the sport and I guess he is responsible for the popularity in his country”.
As well as Skora, Poland has boasted other top freestylers including two-time European Champion Lukasz Chwieduk. Such is the popularity of the sport in the country, they now boast over 400 freestylers doing their thing around the country.
The competition format usually has its competitors take turns in doing their trick-filled routine to set criteria. They are then judged by a panel of experts to establish who has won each ‘battle’. The skills are performed with opponents and fans looking on from nearby and with music accompanying each act. It’s like a peculiar hybrid of gymnastics floor performance and a rap-battle, just with a football thrown in.
Like any sport which is decided by a judging panel, it can often be controversial. “Judging is subjective, what one judge likes might not impress the next judge so there can often be issues around the judging of events, especially the big events where the stakes are high”. The stakes are high in these competitions now and with increased sponsorship and prize money, it is possible to be a professional in the art.
Like any ‘scene’, whether sporting or in the arts, fashion also plays a part. “Many freestylers use an athletic style in terms of clothing, your sports clothes you would probably expect a footballer to wear. There is also what is called the ‘block scene’, where competitors clothes are more inspired by breakdance or skateboard style”.
Taping in to this mix of football and culture is Dutch legend Edgar Davids. The former midfielder has his own clothing label, Monza, with many of the styles inspired by the freestyle world. One significant contribution to the sport that Davids has provided is the Monza ball, designed specifically for the sport. The difference between it and an ordinary match ball is that the outer layer of the Monza ball is made of denim. The denim provides extra grip and traction for the freestyler, assisting to some degree, their tricks and skills.
More than the competition and the fashion, it’s the creative and performance aspect of the sport that Alex seems to enjoy most. “I started a Youtube channel with some friends to give me a chance to be more creative with my freestyling. As well as the skills, I’ve tried to find nice locations and aesthetic backdrops to film in”.
One of Alex’s most impressive backdrops features the demolition of a huge power station smokestack, “It was difficult to time it right as I was performing the skills waiting the demolition behind me, timing was everything and the margin of error on these skills is so small”. The result is impressive though, Callaghan got his timings spot-on with the chimney crumbling to smoke filled rubble behind him as he performs with the football.
The sport has taken Alex all over the world, “I’ve travelled a lot and freestyle has taken me to some amazing places”. Alex has spent time performing in Japan and has also competed in a competition at the coliseum in Rome. One of his favourites though, is much closer to home.
“I’ve performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the last four years now, it’s one of the best places to perform”. People from all over the world converge on Scotland’s capital for the year festival and it’s the people that make it special for Alex.
“I love performing during the fringe, unlike other performers I don’t need a venue, I just turn up on the street with my ball”. The streets are filled with visitors and Callaghan uses his talent to engage with as many as he can, “they are from all over but it doesn’t matter for what I do, it translates into any language because everyone knows and loves football”.
The work Alex and his freestyle peers put in to their performances is intense, hours of practice quickly mount up to days, weeks and months of honing a particular trick or skill. The repetition of their training pays off with some eye-popping abilities which belies the ability of most of us who have kicked a ball.
The sport and the scene are ever-growing and its popularity continues to be on the rise. Where Alex gets his pleasure is from bringing the artform to other people. “I have a degree in community education and I have done some work with kids and youth projects. I love showing freestyle to the kids, it shows them a new way of having fun in a healthy way, but it’s all about the fun really”.
Alex is extremely talented and enthusiastic about the sport of freestyle, a look at the routines on his ‘Freeform Football’ Youtube page are as technically impressive as they are aesthetically good to look at. As the sport keeps growing, so will the platform upon which athletes such as Alex can perform.