A time of 30-cent plastic balls and court-hogging
“There are eight of us, and just one of you,” retorted my friend as he stuck his finger in the stranger’s face before slapping the basketball out of the stranger’s hand.
Numerical supremacy did not win in this scenario which took place some 20 years ago. The security guard of our compound shooed us off the court.
Not that it really mattered. We took the game to the grass patch beside the court. For the rest of the afternoon, my friends tried their best to hit the solitary figure on the court with their “accidental” wayward shots on goal.
On days when it was raining, the game was moved indoors to the void deck, with the four oblong pillars on the playing field acting as inanimate defenders for either side.
The security guard would occasionally make a cameo here, too.
“Aiyoh, you boys again. People are complaining that you are a hazard,” he would lament.
“We have never hit any of the passers-by. We always stop the game for them to pass!” would be the usual retort.
“They are complaining that you’re also being too noisy,” the security guard added.
With no physical space left to retreat to, we ended on the virtual pitch in Winning Eleven on the PlayStation, playing till around 6 pm when we each had to return home for dinner.
If you had grown up playing football in the late 80s and 90s like I did, such scenes might seem familiar to you.
Many boys from my generation went through the rite of passage of playing with 30-cent plastic balls that we took turns buying from the mama shop before graduating to the larger, more intimidating leather balls.
Playing football was something that we did almost every day. The void deck was the most popular choice, not just because it allowed for the game to take place regardless of rain or shine, but also because dribbling a plastic ball was far easier on concrete than grass.
This was our version of “street football”. I don’t think many people in Singapore played football on an actual street during my time.
Earlier this week, the God of Street Football departed this world. His name was Diego Maradona.
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Countless eulogies have been published in remembrance of the legend, so I won’t attempt to write another.
Rather, I would like to pay homage to the one aspect of his illustrious yet controversial life that undoubtedly shaped him into the mercurial sporting icon he was – street football.
During my childhood, this form of football was a way of life.
I never missed a session with my classmates or neighbours, no matter how tired I was after school. In fact, the only reason I attended my table tennis school team training was because I knew I would get to play football after. There were no futsal courts back then. We simply took over the basketball courts in school or in the surrounding neighbourhoods. If there were already people on the courts, we’d simply kick the ball around until they got the hint, or until someone called the cops.
I don’t think that it’s a coincidence the golden age of Singapore football took place around the same time when countless people across the nation played football in void decks or grass patches or repurposed other sporting venues into a football pitch. Back then, football was indeed life for many of us.
Since football was outlawed in the void decks, these common areas have become nothing more than soulless, sterile spaces. I have not done empirical research on how the death of void deck football has resulted in the demise of Singapore football, but I’m as certain about a correlation between them as I am that Liverpool will retain the title this season.
You see, it is common knowledge that a sport has to become an intrinsic part of the grassroots if a nation is to excel in it on the world stage.
This simply isn’t the case today in Singapore. The scene is way too sterile.
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One could argue that we now have modern offerings for a modern age, such as caged futsal arenas in HDB estates that are dedicated to the sport, but the point here isn’t about the availability of physical spaces – it’s about the intangible thing called culture.
After all, street football culture has never been about the space. The very fact that it can take place anywhere is a reflection of what this form of football encapsulates – improvisation.
Playing football in a non-standard setting does have its perks. I once thought that having to place the ball within the narrow gap separating the two poles of the basketball stand was difficult. That was until I played on a court where the stands were held up by a single pole.
The only way to score? Hit the pole.
How did we deal with the pillars in the void decks or the elevated mounds of earth on the grass patch? We used them as an extra defender, or as a means of concealing the nature of our free kicks.
Reacting to the environment, relying on our instincts and improvising was what we gleaned from street football. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these are hallmarks of many a footballing great.
Indeed, we can definitely learn these traits in an academy, but I reckon nothing beats the out-of-the-box, informal experience that street football offers.
The beauty of street football lies in that it is unorthodox and unfettered. The same could be said of Maradona. He will always be a legend not because he was the perfect role model, but because he was the classic antihero who was equal parts bad and good.
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Football development could use a similar approach. Tightly regulating the sport at all levels suffocates the creativity out of potential Maradonas. Just look at VAR. We would never have witnessed The Hand of God had this monstrosity of an invention been implemented in 1986.
And how much less colorful would the history of football be without it?
So, dear Singapore, let’s do a Maradona for our football.
Let’s bring back void deck football, as much as it will annoy easily annoyed Singaporeans. Let them complain. Let controversy and conflict take over. These are what make football The Beautiful Game.
The void deck is where footballing ambitions should sprout from.
Don’t get me wrong. Void deck football isn’t going to singlehandedly elevate the level of the sport in this nation. But it’s a start.