I distinctly remember the feeling I had after playing football for the first time. I was about 9 years old and on that particular day at school, football was the sport of choice during our sports class. It was pure ecstasy. The dye was cast. There was only one way forward from then on — It’s all I looked forward to everyday. Even now I get excited practicing on my own or even just passing by a football field. Football does that you and I’m sure the same could be said for other sports as well. Growing up in Mumbai, we didn’t have access to football academies, coaches or other forms of organized sport outside of tournaments at school level. I would’ve loved to be part of an academy or club and have the opportunity to train 2–3 times a week. But, there’s one part of my childhood that I wouldn’t give up for anything. It’s where I learned most, if not everything, about playing football. It’s where I learned how to be tough and to get up after falling down. It’s where I learned to love the game. The streets — any field (or beach if you live on the coast), playground, concrete patch or open space that you played on with your mates.

I was fortunate to grow up with a group of kids in my neighborhood that enjoyed playing football. I was even more fortunate that they were good players too. Being one of the youngest, I got to play on a regular basis with kids 4–5 years older to me. I knew I was good enough and I felt that they realized that too. No one ever went easy on me and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I had to learn and adapt. If you don’t play well you probably don’t get called enough to play. It was a bit like survival (except on days when we were short on players). Games were always fun but no one liked to lose. More than a few times did things get heated up, even in games that bore no consequence. It’s just what playing football meant to us. We played by the rules and we learned to self-officiate. We learned to be honest and responsible. No sliding tackles on concrete floors (although some did like to violate that unspoken rule). Time would fly by. The longer the better.

Day out practicing on my own. The love for the game persists.

Kids nowadays, unfortunately, don’t grow up playing that kind of self-organized, scrappy football that is ultimately the best platform for expressing yourself. Thats where you build character, develop humility and form an ever-lasting bond with the game. The freedom and creativity that playing with your mates affords you is beyond what you can achieve with organized football. You make your own decisions and are held 100% accountable to them. No hiding behind anyone or anything such as shoddy footballs, worn-down shoes and bad pitches or courts. If you wanted to moan you’d be more than welcome to sit outside and watch.

With kids growing up in ever-increasing physical isolation from one another, the need for “unorganized play time” is more critical than ever for reasons outside of football as well. School and community initiatives can definitely help but they require funds and other resources that are not always available to them. There is, however, one area where this could quite easily be accomplished — academies. Football academies, and other coaching schools, already have access to a large group of players. They have the coaches and the infrastructure to support play. The only missing aspect, and unfortunately the most critical one, is mindset.

Too much about coaching at academies is all about winning. Coaches marching up and down the touchline yelling instructions are not an uncommon sight. It’s worse when you realize that the players sometimes are all but 7 years old. It’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying football in such an atmosphere. Training sessions are very often focussed on elaborate drills and fancy exercises (most likely picked up directly off the internet) that don’t do too much more than feed the coaches’ egos. The game is an after-thought in most sessions. Hopefully the kids get to play for 20 minutes at the end, if everything up till then has gone “according to plan”. It doesn’t add up.

Football is the easiest sport to administer — all you need is a ball and some free space. You can even make do without shoes. It’s ironic that when you have these kind of awesome sport halls that the focus tends to drift away from the game.

I am not advocating for a 90-minute training session where you just set up the field and walk-away. No. Instead, the challenge lies in capturing the essence of the streets in each session. Empowering kids to make decisions. Holding them accountable for transgressions. Developing responsibility and character. Encouraging creativity and freedom. All the while assisting, mentoring and coaching. Sometimes, it helps to take a step back and not interfere. Set the rules of the game and let the players get on with it. Make it a competition to add an element of pressure. All it needs is a shift in mindset. Football is first and foremost about fun. About expression and scoring goals. About creativity and extraordinary skills. Trying and failing. And then trying and succeeding. That’s how you learn anything and everything. Only the game affords you this form of unadulterated learning. In a world where kids don’t play enough on their own, do your bit to bring the game “back to the streets”.

Let the game be the teacher.

I trained 3–4 hours a week at Ajax when I was little but played 3–4 hours everyday on the street. So where do you think I learnt football?

— Johan Cruyff