Once in a while you come across a footballer who mesmerises you with his skill. Like an artist who glides across the field painting a beautiful picture; like a wizard who manages to completely captivate the ball, put it under hypnosis and makes it dance to his tunes. He's got magic in his feet. Pele, Maradona, George Best, Zinedine Zidane, Johan Cryuff, Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar, etc...these are the "magicians" who have changed (or are changing) football. However, there is a growing tribe of men (and women) who are changing the game from the sidelines. Aarish Ansari, 22 years of age, born and brought up in Mumbai, is one of them. His site of play is not restricted to the 100-130 yards of the football field. His site of play is his own body. Aarish is a football freestyler.
"A football freestyler is someone who performs tricks and skills with the football. There are no rules. It's all about being creative with the ball, what movements can one do with the ball and make it look unbelievably entertaining. People say it is the art of liberating one's thoughts using football, adding zest to it by performing a few tricks. The ball is juggled using different parts of one's body," is how Billy Wingrove and Jeremy Lynch, who run a football freestyling agency 'The F2' define their profession.
The definition resonates with Aarish. He considers himself an artist and a serious athlete. "I engage in the art of self-expression with a football. I perform with the football. In that sense, I am not very different from regular players who engage in a game of football. It is just that our way of expressing ourselves and our end goals are different," he says.
But what made him to try this "different" version of football? Turns out it was all an accident, quite literally. "I was playing in the Mumbai District Football Association in 2011, when I was tackled by an opposition player during a match. That left me with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. At that time, I was too young and naive, and didn't really care about the injury too much. I still played that full season wearing a knee brace. That only made things worse and I was forced to leave football for a long time. During this time, I started trying tricks with the ball and replicating moves Ronaldinho did in commercials. I remember going to my friend's house after school just to watch Ronaldinho videos on his computer, as I didn't have a computer back then. I searched for those videos again and got to know about this sport. I watched videos of Palle, Billy Wingrove and Kamalio all day long. I started off doing this only to pass the time, but after a few months I was practicing three hours a day to learn new tricks," he recalls.
What started as a way to pass time during an injury soon turned into an all-consuming passion which has now become his profession. Aarish now has his own crew called Footrix and runs an academy that teaches football freestyle.
Besides, he has also worked closely with Mumbai City FC during the 2014 ISL season, where during half-time breaks, he did football freestyle shows in all their home matches.
Check out a video of Ansari performing his skills:
He is also a committee member and India's representative at the Asian Freestyle Football Federation, the official governing body for freestyle football in Asia. He is also a member of the Freestyle Football Federation, the worldwide governing body of the sport. It is responsible for the development of the sport in Asia. Every country in Asia has a representative who is responsible to hold competitions, build the community and spread the culture in their respective countries; Aarish is the Indian representative. And that is still not all that the 22-year-old has accomplished. In January 2016, he set a Guinness World Record for the most football crossovers in 30 seconds while sitting. This, despite an ACL reconstruction he underwent in September 2015 for the same injury he had in 2011 during which he had got hooked to freestyling in the first place.
But he doesn't view himself as a trailblazer or a role model, rather as someone who surprised his own destiny. "I live in Malwani in Mumbai, a place notorious for its crime and gangs and such bad things. Coming from such a locality, it was always difficult to do something that no one even knew about. I come from a humble middle class background. My father is a businessman and my mother is a housewife, I have two elder sisters. Football was my escape. I have been playing it since I was eight. First for my school, then my college and later in the MDFA," he said. "My life as a freestyler is a dream. What started off as a hobby has now turned into a profession. I get to travel a lot for shows, work with new people, meet the top actors and sport stars. Besides, freestylers are a small, close-knit community, so I have friends everywhere."
And if what he does doesn't look easy, it's because it is not supposed to be. Aarish trains for three-four hours every day. He takes a day off whenever he feels his body needs rest. Even while traveling, he puts in atleast an hour of training. "The biggest challenge is in having the same passion for work as you did when you started. There are times when you just don't feel like continuing. Either you can't get some trick or combination going, or there are no monetary benefits from it. But then again, I feel only those who can get through this phase are the ones who succeed," he said.
For a man who is just 22, he has already achieved quite a bit. But he is quick to dismiss it; he is hungry for more. "I plan on opening more branches of my academy. Representing India at the World Championship in Czech Republic is a dream that I want to realise soon. I am also training to break another world record in a few months," he says, outlining his plans ahead.
And that is exactly why he is not very different from any other world class athlete. He is still trying to get better at his craft and he is putting in the practice that is needed.
What freestyle football is all about:
Updated Date: May 02, 2016 15:04 PM