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Our Childhood Playing Street Soccer

I started playing soccer when I was five years old. During the four months of summer
vacation, as soon as we had our breakfast and our parents left home, we too left home and went into the street to play with the other kids in our neighborhood. Alleys and narrow streets around our houses were full of children of different ages separated roughly by their age group. Usually, as younger kids we sat down by the curb and watched the older kids play. The dominant game, of course, was football or as Americans call it, soccer; even though other sports like volleyball, running, and high jumping as well as many other sporting activities that could be played in the street were also popular.

At times when the older boys did not have enough players they called on the kids sitting
by the curb “Hey shorty go get in the goal”. The kid who was called would jump up and rush in to join the game. After being called on, some of these kids showed their skills and gradually became regulars to the games.

Our neighborhood was blessed with a big number of national and premier league players; I can count more than fifteen top-level club and national players. Fortunately for us, these players only practiced with their club only a couple times a week and they loved to play in the street. Even national players in our neighborhood played in the street all the time. Of course, most of the time we sat down by the curb and watched them play. At this time, I was 10 or 11 years old, and as I mentioned above they asked younger kids to join them if they were short of their own level players. We were very fortunate to play with these top-level players and at the very young age, we had the opportunity to learn from the best. We also watched the international games on TV standing outside of the store selling TV’s. Sometimes, there were hundreds of people standing outside of the shop and watching their favorite game. At this time almost 50 years ago, the television was not very prevalent in Iranian society and probably only one family owned a TV in the whole neighborhood.

Gradually, we had our own 12 to 13 year old group and often some national and older
club players joined us to play street soccer. Let me tell you how our day started on a typical summer day: Our parents left for work around 7:00 AM, and right away we left home to join our friends to start our day as well. Each of us kids had roughly two pennies allowance. As kids started to gather, we knew we needed exactly eight players and 16 pennies to buy a small plastic ball that was and still is very popular in Iran for street soccer. Sometimes, in order to make the plastic ball a little more sturdy with more weight we needed to put the new ball that we already purchased inside another ball that was ripped open the previous day by the cops. These balls usually would not last very long since they were either blown by the passing cars in the street or ripped open by the cops called by our neighbors or the neighborhood merchants. Usually, the cops showed up like a Texas thunderstorm, unannounced with a jeep running after us to capture the ball and tear it to pieces. They knew if they could get the ball, there would be no more playing for the rest of the day, since the kids would not have any more money to buy another ball. Kids knew this as well, so they did anything they could to rescue the ball by putting their slender body between themselves and the ball by kicking it down the street and running after it. Most of the time  they were successful in beating the cops getting to the ball, picking it up and disappearing into zigzagged narrow alleys in the neighborhood. Most kids had the button scar on their body and they showed it to the other kids as a badge of honor and their dedication to save the ball.

We played the whole day; from 8:00 AM to midnight. Everybody went home for lunch, had their lunch and returned back to the usual place right away; some kids had more strict parents and had to stay home and take a nap. Between 1:00 to 5:00 PM we sat down on the steps attached to the houses in the sidewalk and argued about the games that we played in the morning and argued about the amazing moves that we copied from the Brazilian and other European stars on those days like Pelé, Garrincha, Di Stéfano and others.

Sometimes we stayed in the shade and practiced our juggling with the ball and bet our allowances if we had not spent it already on a new ball earlier in the morning. Most of the kids were talented enough to juggle the ball counting to hundreds. We had kids that could juggle the ball counting over a thousand and raced against two or even more kids. Right after the sun threw its shadow on the street we started playing again. Street lights that were recently installed in the street allowed us to play until 11:00 PM and sometimes later; especially when there were live International football games played very late in Iranian local time. All the kids and their parents gathered in one neighborhood house that owned a TV and watched the game.

After we got together and were able to collect and buy the ball, we set up the field by making two goals made of four pieces of clothing, usually our coats that we wore when we went to school. The two best players picked up their teams, which sometimes took a long time arguing about each player’s abilities. We were our own referees. Strangely enough, I do not remember many incidents that we argued about the call. We also needed to freeze the game as soon as we heard a car coming from a distance; after the car passed we started the game right away.

Elder men and sometimes women sat down by the platform of their houses and watched the game. That was a good opportunity for us kids to show off ourselves and hear adults praising us.

Everybody played all the positions, not only because of inherent small game characteristics, but since each kid started their soccer “career” playing in the goal as a keeper, graduating and promoted to a field player. We started the game with a keeper, one defender and two forwards with all three players playing everywhere on the street with the defender playing as a defender and ball distributer( midfielder) and two forwards roamed the length of the field back and forth.

Street soccer not only taught us playing all positions and touching the ball
hundreds and hundreds of times to become comfortable with the ball anywhere on the field, but it also taught us team management, conflict resolution, cooperation, fairness, respect for the elders on the team and many other life lessons that we would not, and could not get anywhere else. This of course was the most important thing building the core of our personalities and characters. This is one aspect of the street soccer that I have not seen anyone mention when they talk about street soccer. This might be because they had not experienced street soccer first hand.

My recommendation to all soccer coaches is to empower their players by giving them the responsibility to make the field, pick up players and let them manage themselves. Step in to tweak the rules here and there and step out. We only need to prepare the environment, facilitate the process and let the game be the teacher.

Bahram Paiani
USSF “A” License