The Age of Street Football

STREET FOOTBALL  by John Cartwright

 The glory days of Street Football in the UK ran, more or less, from the early 1900’s through to the late 1950’s. Small pockets may have survived in some of the more economically deprived areas of the country beyond the 50’s but generally, as economic prosperity increased, Street Football ‘died’.

A similar situation occurred in some Western European countries, although the demise of the street game has not happened so swiftly in some parts where economic progress has only moved forward slowly. In these deprived areas of Europe and in other parts of the football world, the street game is still played and enjoyed by millions on open spaces, beaches as well as in streets because of the simplicity to organize and play it.

It only struck me recently when talking to some coaches in the UK about Street Football, that most of our coaches under the age of 60 would hardly have played it. By 1958 Street Football had virtually disappeared and men who are now 60 or younger and born in 1948  would have only reached the age of 9-10 by the late 50’s, by then Street Football was in steep decline.

The Street Football period had a crucial impact on the game of Association Football – it provided players for the game and this has never really been fully understood or appreciated by the coaching fraternity that has followed it.  There is a saying in the game, ‘POVERTY PRODUCES PLAYERS’ and in many respects it does. The street games of the past, as well as those still played today in under-developed nations, is the ‘stage’ that impoverished players use to display and develop their natural talent.  Although the Street Football game is flawed in some aspects regarding game understanding, in my opinion it stands supreme as a method of learning whilst playing. Since its demise, there has only been one satisfactory replacement for it – the Practice-Play coaching methods designed and used by PREMIER SKILLS COACHING LTD. who have produced a modernized coaching adaptation of it.

As I mentioned earlier, the street game is easy to organize; a group of players (1v1) or more; a small, flat area; a ball (any size); anything as a goal or goals, and the game is under way. But what are the features of Street Football, both positive and negative, that made it such an influence on the game of Association Football here and throughout the world?

Well, to discover those qualities you’ve really got to play it, so we will here, — in words from start to finish.


A small group of boys (not girls in those days) one of whom has managed to acquire a ball (of any size and ‘bounceability’) decide to have a game of football (no TV ; DVD; I-Pods; Computers etc  or Money in those days) small games like these were then the leisure activities for most boys—young and old. Games were played at any time that was suitable and when enough boys wanted to play.

The playing area would be close-by for games to be played often and without too much preparation necessary. The playing surface was normally of concrete or some other hard substance. Oh, and was it clear of bricks, glass or other bits of debris thrown there by the gang from the next street? If our patch had been raided, a player’s mother nearest the scene would supply the broom to sweep the area clear. The size of the playing area would be arranged according to the number of players available at the time (and increased or decreased as players came or left). The size of the playing area was important for if it was too big the game became more of a stamina exercise and not a football one! And what about the goals? Well, anything that was close at hand. (Bricks; Tin Cans; Coats etc.)

If player numbers was short sometimes only one goal was required or a target to hit was all that was needed. As the numbers of players increased, two ‘goals’ were usually set out.  Floodlights, if you were lucky, were conveniently placed street lights that provided enough light for games during the dark winter evenings. Oh, and don’t forget everybody wore their normal clothes, so there was little distinction between one team and the other, but don’t let little issues like that stop the game –  all is now ready for the action to begin.

 There was always a keen anticipation and an excitement to play a ‘competitive’ match even though it was only against your street chums. The boys who made up the players for these games were of a variety of ages and sizes — (8years olds could quite easily be competing against 18 year olds). Now came the part that was satisfying to those who were regarded as good players, but was somewhat embarrassing for those with lesser footballing ability or were the ‘babies’ in the group – team selection!

The ‘cruelty’ of selection methods for these games rarely stopped the lesser performer from wanting to take part. The two ‘captains’ (usually the best two players) tossed up to see who would have first pick of the ‘talent’ available. The winner of the toss took his pick and then the other captain made his selection. This selection process then changed so that the second captain had another pick, this alternating of selection was continued until all the players filled both teams. Selection of players was made in this way in order to make the teams as equal in ability as possible. However, the worst two players, or the youngest two players were always left until last (and were usually made to play in goal with only short periods allowed as an outfield member of their team—nobody wanted to be the last player selected and to move up the selection ladder, ‘goalies’, when given playing time outfield, would play as hard in the game as possible to improve his position in the selection process and not be a ‘goalie’ the next time a game was played.

Well, the playing area was ok, the two teams were selected and the game was ready to start. No Referee! Who needs a Ref? All decisions were made quickly by the players themselves – to argue over a decision took time away from playing and playing was more important than arguing over some technicality. Disputes, if they occurred, were dispensed with without the loss of playing time. Kick-off…….well the team who had won the toss for selection kicked off – The game was up and running. How long would it continue? Well, as long as there was sufficient light to see; no rain; and enough players who hadn’t been called away for meals, bed, or repairs to shoes, clothing or themselves, a game rolled on and on.

Street Football ‘culled’ the weak from the strong. Playing for long periods, day after day, week after week, year after year, developed a physical fitness amongst the players that stood most in good stead throughout their lives. But in conjunction with the fitness aspects what actual football content did these games produce?

With areas to play in usually limited by availability or reduced to achieve a ‘pitch’ size that was conducive to the number of players involved, SPACE AND TIME awareness became the essential issue of performance in street games. If a person has no appreciation of space and time he or she has a major problem to survive in life let alone play a sport. Therefore, the ability to recognize and adapt to varying situations and circumstances is fundamental in both life and sport. The games in these small, cramped areas developed the ‘razor-sharp’ football intellect required for the quick selection of the necessary skills to use and the speed with which to accomplish them.

 Coaching methods introduced by academics into football have continually disregarded the importance of space and time decision making in the teaching of the game. This vital mistake has produced players with techniques and not the realistic skills and understanding for competitive play. Present coaching methods, little changed for over half a century, have concentrated on teaching unopposed techniques as is seen in drill practices. These do not satisfy the need for decision making on space and time that players must have in situations when on or off the ball in competitive situations. It is essential to have active ‘interference’ in practices in order to simulate the realistic needs of the competitive game from day one. Coaching must supply this type and quality of work to players in gradual stages, and in so doing, develop  realistic ability and game understanding for the game in players from junior through to senior levels.

The small areas and small playing numbers associated with street games increased the amount of touches of the ball and decisions to be made by the players. Awareness, as already mentioned, is the foundation of decisions in both on and off the ball situations. The successful completion of a skilful action or subtle move depends on; seeing – deciding – acting. The sooner coaching practices begin to follow this formula in a suitable ability-adjusted, competitive fashion, the quicker coaching will provide a higher quality of talent for the game in the future.

Probably one of the most attractive features of Street Football was the opportunity it gave to play in a ‘failure free’ atmosphere. There were no parents or coaches screaming from the sidelines and players could try out new skills or moves in a continuous ‘trial and error’ format. Because of its ‘loose’ demands on positioning in games, players could be attackers or defenders as the game developed. This ‘free spirit’ approach can be viewed in both positive and negative terms for, on one hand it allowed players to be involved in attacking and defending, but generally a deeper understanding of positional play and game understanding was often missing.

 Some interesting aspects concerning street games shows the subtle influence they had on player development. For example, players always displayed good balance even when running fast, twisting and turning or landing after jumping for the ball; why, because if they fell on the hard surfaces on which these games were played severe injuries were possible. Similarly, when tackling, players stayed on their feet and didn’t go to ground for the same reason.

Scoring a goal was always the ultimate achievement, but every effort on goal was made so that the ball did not travel too far through the goal because the scorer would have to run to retrieve it! Shaping to pass the ball softly into goal became a vital part of the scoring skill in the street. It was a similar feature when passing the ball. The ball was usually small and was difficult to control so passes to team-mates were softly weighted to them. It was also important in areas where games were played near high walls or other forms of fencing that the ball was kept low as much as possible to save the inconvenience of having to clamber over these obstacles to rescue it.

The use of kerbs and walls in and around an area provided the players with natural rebound surfaces to use as required during games. An ability to play ‘wall passes’ off these surfaces created a skill in the players of the period that has sadly diminished in the game today.  The use of the outside of either foot combined with a refined judgment on timing, passing weight and angle of return to receive the ball in space, was an important part of the street game.

 Another important skill that is now mostly used by the foreign ‘mercenaries’ playing here is the art of screening the ball. An often used individual skill used at all levels of our game, it increased the certainty of both individual and team ball possession. Today, too often the ball is passed, one –touch, often with little regard to need or accuracy by players who have been developed in the structured methods of organized coaching.

                                      Well, the game is played and the score, like the duration of the game, could become rather extended. In order to keep the score to a realistic level it would be reduced down.  If one team was much superior than the other there would be a player ‘transfer’ to re-establish equality between them.

      Suddenly, a cry would ring out as the light begins to fade, “ John, time for bed, school tomorrow.” And so, tired but satisfied, it was off to bed with dreams of showing my street-acquired skills in big games in world-famous stadiums.—it almost, almost happened!


7 thoughts on “The Age of Street Football

  1. I’m surprised that there has been so little response to this article. The street game or small- sided game, was and in some parts of the world still is, the development method for the game of football. It’s impotance as a realistic learning method has been grossly neglected in this country. Those who have offered ‘choreographed’ drills as a replacement have led the game here towards simplistic mediocrity. Football is a game of continuous making and quick changes of decisions. The formalisation of coaching methods suited to a classroom not a football field will never produce players with the qualities required for the top level. Come on let’s read your comments — for and against !

    • In the street and city where I live (Mechelen, Belgium) street football is still very much alive. Some years ago we invested in small goals so that we could bring our game to a higher level. Mostly we play two on two but on other occasions we move our pitch to a nearby parking space where there is room to match with more players. This has produced some very technical football players with a big heart for fair play in every meaning of the word.
      We take a certain pride in the fact that our street football roots lay in the St Jacob street. So when we play in different cities we will never score a goal that we regard as an ‘ugly’ one. We rather don’t score it.
      It has been my experience that though street football also social skills are being developed there is a certain understanding among those who play street football; We just want to play. So when I was in Barcelona, Sevilla, Berlin, Paris and Rome this has always helped me in making new friends and join a match instantly whenever there was a game going on.

      This is a movie one of my friends had to make for school. The topic was youth cultures. And he did a little piece on street football in our street. It is an amateur piece and in dutch but I think you will understand what it is about: 🙂

  2. Over the next few month i will be responding to this theme for my photographic project. I think it tackles much wider issues such as modernization and holds a great deal of history. Thank you for this article it has been very helpful from a researchers point of view.

  3. That’s where I learnt to play the game. We used to play with “backies” , goalies that were allowed to play on the park as well as mind the goals. Great days indeed. I despair now when I go back to Scotland and rarely do you see football being played in the street. We even used to play in the close of the tenements in Glasgow. Scotland used to produce some really skillful players then.

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