Dutch professional clubs run street football sessions through pandemic

Excelsior street league. Foto: Annelies Romers

“Go on, go on!” Floris dribbles faster. He tries his best to control the ball, but he trips over it and falls. “Nice try,” says the football trainer from Excelsior, “Come on, let’s go!”

Top Dutch professional football clubs from FC Groningen to PSV are taking to the streets to provide training clinics and street leagues in neighbourhood squares for local children like Floris, a vital relief during a year in which the Covid-19 pandemic has shut schools and prevented gatherings across the world. 14 out of 18 clubs in the highest professional football league in the Netherlands are taking part.

During this pandemic, the most convenient way to combat boredom is playing outside. Tired of sitting behind a screen or roaming the streets aimlessly, children rush to the squares. Especially when they see the logos of their beloved football clubs, these motivate them on a different level than parents and schools can.

“It is Floris’ biggest dream to get recruited,” said his babysitter Bernice Verhoeven, “That is why every Thursday afternoon we need to go here.”

Improving fitness is also a key goal. The number of overweight children in the municipality of Rotterdam proved higher than the Dutch average in 2018. In some neighbourhoods, this trend is particularly prominent. 1 out of 4 children is overweight in some neighbourhoods in Rotterdam as opposed to 1 out of 8 in the Netherlands.

If these children are not brought to the local sports club, Rotterdam’s professional football clubs Feyenoord, Sparta or Excelsior bring sports to them. The exact number of children that join is hard to pinpoint, but estimations show that this year 3.118 children have taken part.

The project coordinator of Excelsior’s street league Andrean Loizides noted that they do not really recruit; it is more about combining fun and football. During the free clinics, the children get to learn new tricks. With the street league, they play with teams from other neighbourhoods. “However, it is more than football.”

As well as teaching them new skills, the trainers keep a close eye on the wellbeing of the children. Sometimes they notice that a boy or girl does not look them in the eye or seems sad. Loizides explained that children might experience little achievement or endured an unpleasant event.

“We will provide a feeling of success,” told Loizides. The trainers teach the children that when they try, they can succeed. “They flourish!”

School principal Vincent Wolsheimer works together with the initiative of a professional football club, because of their network and the extent to which they are able to act as a role model.

The trainers have a lot of influence on the children, even though they themselves have not participated in the highest levels of Dutch professional football. Enthusiastic citizens from diverse socio-economic backgrounds are trained by Sparta to become football trainers for the local children.

Aniky Silva at Sparta clinic. Photograph: Annelies Romers

Aniky Silva is one of these trainers: “Whatever I will do, they will do.” She teaches them how to look after themselves on the streets and creates an environment in which everyone is welcome to play along. “Just feel free, you do not have to be ashamed of anything. You can just be yourself.”

However, if someone says a nasty word, he or she is not allowed to play along. “Time penalty of five minutes!” screamed the Feyenoord trainers to teach the children not to swear.

Feyenoord training on the football court on Afrikaanderplein funded by famous Dutch football player Johan Cruijff. Movie: Annelies Romers

A sense of family is created on the football ground Afrikaanderplein told Marouane Elouazizi, who trains his little brother’s football team in the Feyenoord street league. “Everyone is from around here. This tournament gives them assurance because they learn that they can rely on each other.”

Afrikaanderplein was also the first home of Feyenoord, then known under a different name. But Elouazizi explained that his little brother does not come here to become a professional footballer for Feyenoord. “They just want to play and win. I notice that they develop a winner’s mentality, which also comes in handy off the field.”

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