Beyond football

Freestyle soccer has come a long way and even big companies seem to play ball

His girlfriend doesn’t like his ball. He sleeps with it. Wakes up with it. Even carries it wi­th him wherever he goes. Jeon Kwon is aware of his girlfriend’s envy. But the talented South Korean lad doesn’t seem to mind. Kwon is billed as the world number two in free­style soccer, the art of expressing oneself with a football.

He belongs to a burgeoning group of 20 somethings who are experts at making a football look more exciting than just polished, pumped up rubber.

Watching Kwon perform drives home the point. The ball sticks to him like a magnet, as he swivels, swi­ngs and snakes his way through an array of thrilling silky moves on the stage.

“Football gave me everything,” says Kwon in halting English. “It gave me fame, it helped me travel around the world, it made me meet my heroes. I cannot give anyone or anything more priority.”

Kwon is based out of Seoul and is studying sports marketing in between frequent bursts of international travel. He is a hit at global corporate events, television and print commercials, having modelled for companies such as Sony, Nike and adidas. In India for the launch of Samsung’s new range of 3D TVs, Kwon drives the awestruck crowd to frenzy at Select City Walk mall in the capital.

Freestylers like him usually practise on their own to showcase their skills to their peer group and the world in general. Kwon, for instance, trains for nearly five hours a day. “It consists of a combination of ball skills and fitness training,” he says.

More often than not, soccer freestyle artistes use the internet to spread the word around. They document their moves, sometimes in slow motion, and put them up on streaming sites such as YouTube. Some of the more famous ones such as Abbas Farid and Billy Wingrove of the UK, Dutch footballer Soufiane Touzani and Palle from Sweden release their own DVDs to tutor roo­kies.

This profess­ional sport, earlier seen as a hobby, has many corporate biggies interested. For instance, the popular Nike commercial, Joga Bonito (“play beautifully” in Portuguese), featured top footballers such as Ronal­dinho, Cristiano Ronaldo and Edgar Davis alongside freestyle football artistes. Not long ago, energy drink company, Redbull, also organised several free­style competitions aro­und the world. Soon, even Nike followed.

No wonder then that most young freestyle art­istes dream of bagging deals with companies. Advertises Abbas Farid’s website: “Abbas is available for live performances, TV comm­ercials, charity ev­ents, fr­eestyle coach­ing, inter­vi­ews, sponsorship and much more.” Farid has nearly 50 clients including BBC, Sony Ericsson, Volkswagen, Umbro, SAP, Mercedes-Benz, Nike and T Mobile.

Kwon on the other hand is also training other youngsters and wants to start a company someday. “Once I grow old and lose my reflexes I want others to follow in my footsteps. I want to bu­ild my own team and more importantly build a successful company,” he points out.In hindsight, he seems to be already moving in the right direction.

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