In February this year, the FA released a comprehensive set of rules and regulations – the “Laws of the Game” – centered around the principles of no running, no over head-height kicks, and minimal contact – for Walking Football. First played in 2011 by the Chesterfield FC Community Trust to prevent the social isolation of older men and help them get more exercise, the popularity of the sport took off after a 2014 Barclays TV ad. Today there are nearly a thousand walking football clubs (WFCs) registered in the United Kingdom. A year ago, Chitra Ramaswamy, writing for the Guardian, somewhat prophetically connected the ever-growing sport to the increasing popularity of the “slow movement”.
But what is this Slow Movement? The philosophy behind the movement is to take things slow and build our lives in an organic and sustainable manner as against the fast lifestyles we are encouraged to lead and today’s unsustainable hyper-industrialisation and rapid globalization. Today the movement has developed into subcultures in various places and the epithet “slow” is applied to a variety of cultural aspects. However, it all began in Italy in 1986 when Carlo Petrini, then an activist affiliated to the communist Partito di Unità Proletaria movement, staged a protest against the opening of an outlet of a multinational fast-food chain near the Spanish Steps in Rome. The fast food giant was of course McDonald’s – sponsors of the FIFA World Cup since 1994.
Fast forward three decades to 2016, and we have Neymar Jr., the heir apparent to the throne now jointly held by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, urging us to take the #BigMacWalk and dine at the nearest McDonald’s outlet. A year later, Neymar is now the face of the behemoth that is modern top-flight football both in terms of the high level of athleticism it offers – he scored 68 goals in 123 appearances for Barcelona and at the time of writing, has already scored four from five appearances for his new club, Paris Saint-Germain, and also of course in terms of its mind-boggling economics – in a transfer saga fit to be the plot of a blockbuster thriller in itself, PSG paid FC Barcelona €222 million to secure the services of the Brazilian and will pay Neymar €50 million every year.
In today’s world of top-flight sports, the value of the skills possessed by Neymar, Ronaldo, Messi or any other “star” of their caliber plying their trade in any other sport is finally a quantified monetary statistic. They are themselves “bought and sold” on the transfer market and they advertise and promote the sale of jerseys, scarves, and merchandise (which in turn may serve as media for the advertisement of other products and the chain of dominoes thus continues). Neymar of course must still score. With the introduction of data analytics into the game, every goal, every kick and even every touch made by Neymar can be quantified and a monetary value attached to it – what we refer to as “justifying” a transfer fee. Put simplistically, we buy the products that they endorse to try and be like them. Thus, the greater the athleticism displayed by a player in a match, the more we worship him/her as a hero (and aspire to their greatness) and the better the advertisement it is for the product(s) that they endorse.
As is apparent, the economics of top-flight football goes hand-in-hand with a certain physical spectacle on the field. To play twice (sometimes more) a week and play well in every match, a player must of course have a level of fitness that is almost unthinkable to a layperson. On the opposite end of the spectrum stands walking football. It brought the game back into the lives of people for whom even the pace of 5-a-side football games were proving to be too much. In the latter, the spectacle of feats on the pitch is not important at all (in fact, the basic rules themselves prohibit it – no running, no lunging tackles, and no kicking the ball over an opponent’s head) and the speed is leisurely. By slowing the game down, it can accommodate a much wider range of fitness levels.
It is no wonder that the sport has won the support of England legend Geoff Hurst who is now 75 years old, Alan Shearer who is nearly 50 and Fabrice Muamba who had suffered a cardiac arrest during a match in 2012 and had “died” for 78 minutes. At a time when top-flight football is increasingly seen as contributing to an ever-increasing gulf between fans and the clubs they support, the alternative offered by walking football is, as is evident, more inclusive. As George Jackson, a former player for Stoke City whose promising career ended abruptly after an injury to his cruciate ligament told The Guardian, walking football includes “all styles, all shapes, all abilities, all good fun”.
The emphasis on “having fun” or in other words, enjoying an activity can perhaps be traced back to the Situationist International. According to the Situationists of the 1960s, the benign professionalism with which we go about the activities of our daily lives have destroyed all sense of spontaneity and all opportunities to derive joy from them. Besides laying emphasis on sustainable and stress-free production, the slow movement, like the Situationists before them also promotes a sense of playfulness and enjoyment in the activity – in slow art, for example, while the artist works at his/her own pace without the pressure of any deadline, s/he is also encouraged to enjoy making the work of art. While “slow sports” is yet to catch on, the closest that comes to it is perhaps walking football. Relaxed and yet competitive, leisurely and yet able to provide adequate physical exercise, the sport offers an almost perfect counterpoint to today’s fast, physical and often stressful football season.
While today we are obsessed with dribbles, nutmegs, overhead kicks and thundering volleys, we often forget that there is a cerebral aspect to the game too. An often overlooked aspect of walking football is that by removing or at the very least reducing the physical aspect of the game, it promotes tactical thinking and awareness of strategic positioning. The sport thus promotes a more thinking (or, intellectual) approach to football instead of spectacular feats of physicality and/or athleticism.
For older people, the sport also has fantastic physical health benefits. In an age witnessing rising levels of obesity and the onset of diabetes, among other illnesses and diseases, the sport provides the opportunity for vital exercise while at the same time interacting with other people. The camaraderie and banter offered by walking football (and building connections, is after all, one of the hallmarks of the slow movement) to the old who are often haunted by social isolation has been found to be beneficial for their mental health and to help in battling depression.
Walking football cuts through all the trappings of ordinary football matches and breaks it down to the basics – keep possession of the ball, kick it about, and when you think you can score, shoot! There is no pressure to “perform”. On the contrary, it about the love of the company of the ball at one’s feet and a passion to guide it past opponents. Walking football returns to the game a sense of pre-commercial dignity and sportsmanship – as romantic as the concepts may sound.
By IBWM Senior Writer, Shirsho Dasgupta.