While Vietnam was preparing itself for a small piece of football history last month in Hanoi, a very different group of footballers were battling it out for the title of Asia Pacific’s best freestyle footballer in a Ho Chi Minh City television studio
On December 14, the night before Vietnam’s ‘Golden Dragons’ wrapped up their first AFF Cup win since 2008, the World Freestyle Football Association (WFFA) hosted the top 16 of the Asia Pacific Freestyle Football Championships at an entertainment center in the city’s District 10.
Tricking, juggling, flipping, balancing and generally flexing their way through a series of one-on-one battles set to music, the competition attracted 48 of the sports best exponents from all over Asia, including Iran, Australia, Japan, India, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Philippines and South Korea.
Unlike the traditional game, there was no grass and no goalkeepers involved in these games. Instead, there was a heavily-lit stage, a live DJ, a panel of judges and pop-singers as rolling substitutions.
Welcome to the world of competitive freestyle football.
Doing far more than making up the numbers at the regional contest were several of Vietnam’s best young performers, including Nguyen Ngoc Phat from Hanoi, aka @phatfreestyle, who finished third overall, the third time he’s achieved the result at this level.
Phat, through his ATW ‘Around the World’ Team, which he co-founded with fellow freestyler Le Anh Tuan, otherwise known as ‘Tuano’, has been pushing the sport of freestyle forward in Vietnam since 2007.
Having won Vietnam’s national championship for the third time back in January 2018, as recently as November, Phat was representing the country at the World Championships held in Warsaw, Poland, where he performed in front of special guest judge, Brazilian and Real Madrid legend, Roberto Carlos.
Speaking to VnExpress International at the time, he said that being there felt like his "World Cup."
"This is easily the biggest stage for me," he wrote via email, "it really is a dream come true. The atmosphere is amazing, with over 50 competitors from 48 different countries. Representing Vietnam here is my proudest moment."
Won for the second time by Norway’s Erlend Fagerli, who defeated Brazilian defending champion Ricardinho in the final, Phat came up against some of the best freestylers in the world during his qualifying rounds in Poland. These included 2015 Asian champion, Kosuke Takahashi from Japan, who would end up a beaten semi-finalist.
Despite all of this experience, his third place at the Asia-Pacific competition at home, where he was awarded the win in a playoff against Iran’s Ahmedreza, was still a surprise.
"I came here to enjoy the moment on the stage and to enjoy the moment with friends," he said, still adrenalized by his performance. "This result was very unexpected." Also making it through to the final 16 was Nguyen Quang Hieu, otherwise known as ‘HieuNQ.’
Watch the final between PWG & HIRO-K here. Extraction from a Facebook video by "I am a football freestyler"
Given three periods of 30 seconds each to impress the judges in a series of improvised freestyle battles, competitors in this fledgling sport, born on the streets of football-mad countries like Brazil, are judged on difficulty, originality, execution, flair and control.
Wowing the live studio audience of approximately 200 people with their sublime control of a football (which competitors bring themselves) – not to mention thousands of others who streamed the event online – it was Japan’s Hiro-K, real name Hiroyuki Kaneko, and the Philippines’s PWG, aka Phillip Warren Gertsson, who made it through to the evening’s final.
Then, in what can only be described as a closely fought battle, it was Hiro-K who held his nerve to be judged the winner, much to his own and his fellow competitor’s delight, who rushed to the stage in celebration.
"I’ve been to this competition five times now," he told VnExpress International after his win, "and each time I’ve been out early. Finally, I’ve won it, and there are no words. This is an amazing feeling."
Referring to a small band of Japanese supporters in the crowd, Hiro-K said seeing the smiling children’s faces had given him the power to win.
"I don’t have too many friends in Vietnam," he said, "so it was special for me to see these children during my routines. I want to thank them for their support."
Looking like a prizefighter who’d just gone 12-rounds and lost on points, PWG cut a disappointed and slightly bemused figure after the final result.
"I’m disappointed not to get the win to be honest," he said, still drenched in sweat. "I trained really hard to get to this competition, and I really wanted to get two in a row, but this time it didn’t happen."
"Hiro-K was an amazing guy to battle in the final," the veteran performer continued, "and he’s one of my favorite freestylers here, so I respect him a lot. Even though I do disagree with the judge’s decision in the end, it was a great battle, and he’s a great friend of mine, so I wish him nothing but the best."
Commenting on the decision, head judge Haoi-Nam Nguyen, otherwise known as Nam The Man, a leading figure in the sport himself and a 2008 World Champion in Austria, pointed out the difficulty in judging these events.
"You have to be very focused on looking at the fine details," he explained, "and that ability comes from someone with a background in freestyle football.
"Compared to the audience who might not know the sport, there might be some surprises or decisions that go a different way from what they think. It’s just the way it goes sometimes where there are battles involved."
Also part of the judging panel on the night was local hero Doan Thanh Tunga, aka Tungage, and 2014 World Champion from Brazil, Pedro Oliveira, aka Pedrinho, who commented on the standard of the competition.
"This was an intercontinental championship, but if you’d told me it was a world championship, I wouldn’t have been surprised," he said.
Founded in 2011, the World Freestyle Football Association (WFFA) is the doing of its CEO and co-founder Steve Elias, aka Eli Freeze. He’s a legend of the sport himself, labeled the ‘Godfather of Freestyle’ in North America and also a former world champion, known for his dazzling exhibitions across the globe.
The founders of the WFFA have worked with the artistic side of the sport for decades and in 2011 turned it into a professional sport which now has 130 member countries.
"It was created with the belief that young people all over the world should have the opportunity to enjoy the ball, get fit and be role models for others in their communities.
"We think freestylers are representative of values that more young people should develop; confidence, dedication, resilience and friendship," Steve said.
Asked about the progress of the sport in Asia, Steve was positive, as he was about his belief in its global potential.
"Generally the sport is progressing massively all over the globe and Asia is no different. The number of newcomers is increasing every month, and the top countries are developing rapidly including Japan, Indonesia, India, Vietnam and China.
"We want Freestyle Football to become a household name, seen on TV regularly, played all around the world, in schools, in playgrounds and for
millions rather than thousands to be participating."