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Variations on football: How to get involved
For many years, barriers like gender, disabilities and limited niche leagues have prevented children taking up anything other than eleven-a-side football, but other options are becoming more widespread. So what are some of the alternatives to the standard kick-about, and how do youngsters get involved?
Futsal is a variation of five-a-side, played on a hard surface with a size four ball. Halves last twenty minutes each and teams can use unlimited substitutes. Currently, in the official FIFA world rankings, Spain are the top ranked men’s team and Brazil are the best women’s team.
There are nine locations throughout the country that run futsal leagues, where you can either join teams or create your own, and the organisation that governs the sport in the UK offers a UCAS-approved BTEC qualification to give young people the opportunity to learn as well as play the sport. The FA run the National Futsal Super League and, as well as being FIFA recognised with a world cup, UEFA, CONCACAF and other bodies stage continental competitions.
James Dalton, England vice-captain, says of the sport and his move from eleven-a-side, “I was very fortunate to spend so much time growing up associated with a Premier League Academy. As my time at Tottenham Hotspur FC came to an end, I began to evaluate my options and I was guided by academy coaches, Perry Suckling and Alex Welsh, towards futsal and its opportunities.”
Powerchair – or wheelchair – football is a variation that features specially adapted electric-powered wheelchairs on an indoor five-a-side pitch. Each team has four players and a six metre (19ft) wide goal to defend.
There are clubs available in the eight FA regions: North West, North East, West Midlands, East Midlands, London, East, South West and South East. The sport is run by the Wheelchair Football Association (WFA) and there is a guide to forming your own team, as well as details about the existing team nearest to you, available on their website. There are regional leagues, national leagues and a cup to participate in, as well as a national team that partakes in the FIPFA World Cup.
Kai Gill is an aspiring international powerchair footballer, who recently received a trust grant to help him afford his own powerchair. “We are trying to get the sport recognised in the Paralympics,” he says, “as it’s at national league standard at the moment. My dream is to one day represent my country at international level in powerchair football.”
Freestyle football is an evolution of the age-old “keepie-uppies” that you so often see in eleven-a-side professional pre-match warm-ups, and replicated in playgrounds up and down the country. Since the formation of the Freestyle Football Federation (F3) in the UK and the World Tour and European Championships that they run, as well as various privately sponsored open championships, it has become a much more competitive sport.
Performances, either individual or alternating with a competitor in the “battle” format, are timed and judged by a panel based on strict guidelines. Just a quick glance at the freestyle football Wikipedia entry reveals the vast number of moves already available for players to practise, but it really is a sport that’s constantly evolving and where you can be as creative as your skill level allows, as long as you don’t use your hands.
One of the great things about freestyle football is that anyone can give it a go at any time. As Andrew Henderson, one of the UK’s leading professional freestylers, said in a Football Fancast interview, “You don’t need a coach, you don’t need any special facilities, you don’t need a team around you, and you don’t need a training ground or stadium – only a ball.”
As well as the aforementioned powerchair football, there are a number of other disabled types of football. Amputee, cerebral palsy, hearing impaired, learning disability, visually impaired and blind variations all exist in the UK, and feature a wide range of rule adaptations.
Amputee football can be played with crutches or prosthetic limbs, while blind football is played with eyepatches or blindfolds and with ball bearings inside the ball so players can discern where it is. There are pan disability clubs for amputee and cerebral palsy players, as well as those with physical and learning disabilities, who also have access to Mencap groups, Special Olympics groups and Ability Counts clubs. For hearing impaired football, there are twenty-five clubs spread across standard UK leagues, while visually impaired and blind teams both play in separate national league structures.
Amputee, cerebral palsy and hearing impaired football all have England teams that compete in European championships and world cups, with the latter also eligible for the Deaflympics. In addition, learning disability football have a GB and World Games team, while visually impaired/blind football is already a Paralympic sport.
For more information, the disability football directory provides details about relevant organisations and links to various official organisation websites.
David Ramzan*, Special Education Needs Officer for the National Children’s Football Alliance, says, “Immense progress has been made during the ten years I’ve been involved in disability football. Facilities and opportunities for players with disabilities have become much better but, in my opinion, disability football has now become very similar to mainstream grassroots football, where it’s more about competition than the fun and enjoyment of playing football.
“Mainstream clubs need to change their practices; there needs to be more fun-day football events aimed towards players with physical disabilities, but there is a lack of funding available to run such events.
“The more people get to know and understand about disability football and why youngsters want to play, the more disability leagues will evolve across the counties; it’s not all about winning trophies or finishing at the top of the division, it’s about playing football with your teammates on an even playing field. The more rules and regulations imposed, the less players with disabilities will be able to become involved.
“Of course, if there are players with specific impairments who are good enough to progress through the FA county disability football academies and into international football, that’s fantastic for them and there should be a pathway for them to achieve at the highest level of football, but, as has happened in mainstream grassroots football, they must not lose sight of the fact that the majority of youngsters who play football will only ever play for the fun of it.”
All of the aforementioned variations have their own leagues and competitions, both national and international, and provide interesting, challenging alternatives to the usual choice. There are doubtless even more different takes on the game (zorb football, anyone?) out there to be found and, with these options only set to increase, football has never been as accessible for children.
*The opinions stated by David Ramzan are his own, and not necessarily representative of the views of the NCFA.