A football story and democratizing football

Disclaimer: The blog post is the opinion of my own and is not the view of my employer.

If you follow Forza Football, you might know the company mission is democratizing football. It is an ambitious mission and might take a lifetime, or two, or perhaps no one knows, to achieve.

As an employee of the company, we are usually asked: “What does the mission mean to you?” or “How do you feel aligned to the mission?”. I always start my answer with this story.

A football story

I grew up in Cho Lon, a quite-but-not-so central area in Saigon Vietnam.

As a 10-year-old, my most expecting day in the week was Sunday, when my friends and I were free from school, so we’re allowed to play football all day.

But there’re usually two hard problems with playing football back then: to find a pitch and a football.

The pitch was often any clearing, sidewalk or alley that had not been taken by the street vendors, where we could put our slippers to mark the goal lines and play a 2v2 or 3v3 match. The rules were exceptionally simple:

  1. Goals are valid when they are in between two slippers and under the knees.
  2. If you fall down, you stand up.
Playing football on the street in Vietnam (#DontTryItAtHome)

Sometimes we were lucky, we managed to occupy a place called “Wood Factory”. Wood Factory used to be an abandoned carpentry workshop closed to our town but was then demolished into a spacious rocky cemented area where we could start playing after clearing all the drug needles and condoms left the day before. It was such a privilege to play at Wood Factory, just like playing at Old Trafford or Camp Nou, because you could only take the pitch when you won either a challenge or a fight against another group.

But sometimes the luck didn’t come, we had to take the risk by sneakily playing on the sidewalk in front of the neighborhood association chief’s house. If we made a lot of noise and he caught us and told our parents, the consequences would be either a painful punishment or being grounded from football. From the perspective of a 10 year-old, that definitely sounds more dangerous than the needles. Nevertheless the chief never managed to catch us, because when he opened the heavy door, we already ran off a kilometer away. So after a few times he was frustrated and decided to call the police instead. Then the same thing happened: if we saw the police motorbikes, we ran away immediately.

But the worst thing was that Sweet Potato (I never get to know his real name), the one we appointed to keep the balls, always forgot to take them with him during the runaways. Until now I can still recall the sound made by those sharp scissors angrily stabbing into our balls behind my back.

On Saigon streets back then, we didn’t play with the kind of football you see nowadays but with plastic balls instead. The reasons were quite simple: 1) the balls are light weight, so you don’t break glasses or flatten people’s faces on the streets 2) you don’t need to wear shoes, which could be a fortune to some people (you get some scars on the feet in return). I personally still feel more comfortable playing with bare feet, so next time when you see me playing football without shoes, don’t be surprised.

A football was so precious for us back then. A one-layer plastic ball costed 2000 Vietnamese Dong (~0.2 USD back in 2000s) and two-layer costed 3000, while an arcade game coin was only 500. If you possessed a 5000-Dong three-layer football, which meant your parents must be Paris Saint German kind of rich. To buy a football on Sunday, we sometimes had to skip our arcade games or comic books. It was such a shame to miss a chapter of Detective Conan or Doraemon and … the retarded chief just stabbed it like that. God I have to confess that we hated that old man so much that once we threw trash into his house. (Yeah we should not have done that 😛)

a one-layer plastic ball

When I was 13 years old, my parents bought me my first real football, a lovely size-3 brown one. I loved it so much that I only played it on granite floor to avoid it from being scratched. Then one day my cousin came paying my family a visit and somehow lost the ball, I stopped talking to him for a month.

Now as a grown-up, I am gratefully granted better opportunities. I work in a football company in Europe, the center of world football. I play football on pitches with artificial turf outdoor or carpentry indoor, and never have the concern of missing a ball. I watched Messi, Neymar, Suarez playing football on the lawn of Camp Nou, one of the most sacred football stadiums. But if I am asked what are the most beautiful memories about football in my life, definitely they stay in Wood Factory, on the Cho Lon streets, with Sweet Potato and those one-layer plastic footballs.

The answer to the question

So what does democratizing football actually mean to me? That is everyone — who wants to play the sport — has a pitch, has a football.

That is also why I usually get emotional, yet privileged to see the kids in our academy in Cambodia, happily playing football.

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If you feel aligned to my post and want to give someone a football, there you go.

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