June Issue 2010

By | People | Q & A | Sports | Published 12 years ago

“I want to break all the boundaries because freestyle is all about your imagination”
– Areeb Iqbal, Pakistan National Freestyle Football Champion

The popularity of freestyle football has surged in recent years. Global advertising campaigns and the Internet have fuelled this spike. Nike used freestyle footballers in some of its ad campaigns a few years back and freestyle videos on YouTube featuring the likes of football superstar Ronaldinho have been critical to expanding the sport’s reach.

Areeb Iqbal is a 19-year-old Pakistani freestyler who is already making a name for himself internationally even though he only took up the sport six months ago. He was one of 60 freestyle footballers from around the world who battled it out in Cape Town, South Africa, in April at the Red Bull Street Style World Final 2010. And while the Karachi-based student and footballer didn’t make the top 16 mega final, he succeeded on many levels.

With just one week to go before the FIFA World Cup 2010 kicks off, Newsline speaks to Areeb about the this younger, looser, solo version of football, in addition to his debut on the world stage and why cricket-mad Pakistan should care about this fairly young and unknown sport.

When did you first discover freestyle football?

It all began at the very end of November 2009 when I started watching freestyle videos. But it wasn’t until the start of December that I started freestyling.

That was quick. Within a few months you managed to excel and make it to South Africa. You must have always been interested in football, right?

Yes. Actually, I have been playing football professionally for the last four years with Gulshan Soccer Academy (GSA). I had a dream of becoming a professional footballer and my passion made me attend a six-month-long course with Manchester United Soccer School in Dubai in 2009.

Did freestyle become a sort of obsession or passion for you immediately?

Freestyle initially started as a hobby for me. Whenever I felt restless or bored, I used to pick up the ball, juggle it around and do some tricks because it made me happy and I felt lively. As time went by it became my passion. There was no time of the day when I didn’t have my ball with me. Day after day, I was always freestyling and trying to learn more and more. Now I am obsessed with freestyling and I don’t think I can live without it.

In your own words describe freestyle football.

Freestyle football is anything you want it to be. There are as many different opinions about what football freestyle is as there are freestylers. Freestyle has a different meaning to every one of us but the spirit is the same: that is to have fun. For me it’s my life. It’s a motivation that makes me push myself to the highest limits. The best part is that it has no boundaries: I can express myself without any limitations, something that comes straight from the heart and provides me with the most awesome feeling that just can’t be put into words.

How did you qualify to go to South Africa for the Red Bull Street Style World Championships?

I took part in the Red Bull Street Style (RBSS) qualifications in Karachi and ultimately was selected as one of the top 16 in Pakistan who were to battle it out for the ultimate crown. In the national finals I just wanted to prove myself. It wasn’t about winning or losing but rather making my mark in that historic event. My aim from the start was to entertain the judges and the audience, I tried to perform with a clear and relaxed mind without thinking of making it to the next level — and that’s where things fell into place. I am grateful to Allah that he helped me get through it all. Of course, my friends were a great support at the event too.

Had you been in a lot of competitions before South Africa?

While playing football in my club, I had obviously played a lot of tournaments and league games, but the Red Bull Street Style event was the first freestyle football competition I took part in.

What were you thinking and feeling when you got to South Africa and what were your goals?

It felt too good to be true. I really couldn’t believe I was going to the Red Bull Street Style World Finals. I knew the competition was going to be really tough. Sixty of the best freestylers were participating, including some of my freestyle idols. So yes, I was a bit nervous, but I was more excited to perform with and against them. It was one of the biggest challenges of my life.

I wanted to take that opportunity to make the first milestone; I wanted to show the world that Pakistanis can compete at the same level as people from other nations in everything; I wanted to do something that just might inspire and provide people here in Pakistan something to look up to so that maybe that long-gone belief in themselves rises up again.

You talk about nerves. Were you freaking out before your first head-to-head battle? And what were the crowds like while you were competing?

I wasn’t freaking out, but yes, hell was I nervous! The skill level of all the freestylers was double of the previous world finals. Everyone had there their own show-stopping moves, and on stage it was just about who manages to pull them off.

The crowd was amazing. People loved what we were doing and showed their love and appreciation. I had no one there to cheer for me except for a few friends, but when I used to get up on stage and the crowd would start cheering my name, well, I just can never forget that feeling — it made me perform from the heart.

Areeb competing with a co-freestylist and showing his amazing skills. Photo: Craig Kolesky/Red Bull

Areeb competing with a co-freestylist and showing his amazing skills. Photo: Craig Kolesky/Red Bull

Did you compete against any big-name freestylers that you had seen before on TV or online? If so, did that make you more nervous?

One of the most memorable and the biggest freestyle battles of my life was again Daniel Rooseboom from the Netherlands, one of the masters when it comes to freestyle football. I was really freaking out against him. I knew I had to pull out something really big from my bag of tricks if I even wanted to get close to his level of freestyle. But Daniel supported me a lot, and when we went on stage, I enjoyed every second of those three minutes.

How do you feel about your performance in Cape Town?

The competition within the battles there was enormous. Battling against the living legends of the sport coupled with the responsibility of carrying my county’s name in the freestyle world finals made me a bit nervous initially, but I gained confidence slowly. One major thing I was lacking was the same experience that other freestylers had in my group. All of them had been into professional freestyling for about a year while for me it had been just a mere five months of training. But overall I won’t consider my performance a disappointment at all. I did my job in the best possible way. Changing the perception of Pakistan was my goal: I wanted to give a clear idea to the world that Pakistan too has potential to be big in this sport, and I think I definitely showed them. My long training hours definitely paid off.

I learnt a lot this year at RBSS. Its just a start for me, and next year I am coming back bigger and better cause now I have a dream: RBSS champ for 2014 . . . Pakistan!

What did it mean to you to get this opportunity to go to South Africa to compete?

For me carrying Pakistan’s flag on my shoulders and representing my country among all the other 59 countries from all over the globe was the proudest moment of my life. Winning the national finals and going on to the World Finals is the dream of every freestyler. I felt so lucky to have had this opportunity at just the start of my freestyling career and I am thankful to Allah for giving me this opportunity.

Talk about the world finals: how many matches in the competition did you have, what was it like meeting so many other freestylers, and what was it like to be in that freestyle-focused environment?

All the countries were divided into eight groups, each consisting of seven or eight freestylers who were to battle amongst each other to gain the top spot of their respective groups. The top two freestylers from every group were to be selected for the mega final. I had total of 7 battles in the qualification round and enjoyed every second of it. It was amazing being in the company of top freestylers from around the globe, freestyling among my inspirations such as Palle [Rickard “Palle” Sjölander from Sweden], Azun [Anders “Azun” Solum from Norway], Séan [Arnaud “Séan” Garnier from France] and lots more. It was a dream come true. All of us practicing together into the late hours, sharing our experiences and thoughts about this beautiful game, and by the mega world finals we were more like a family to each other. The experience I had there was totally life changing and I don’t think I will ever forget all those moments.

When you tell people in Pakistan about freestyle, do they automatically know what you are talking about, or do you have to explain it?

The majority of people still don’t know about freestyle football. While talking about freestyle, they automatically think of it as an extension of football, but that’s not the case. Football and freestyle football are two different sports. So yes, most of the time I need to explain what freestyle football really is because it’s much more than meets the eye.

But is this a sport that Pakistan should care about?

Definitely yes. There’s a lot of talent in Pakistan and if it is properly channeled and given importance, like cricket, we can achieve so much internationally. Freestyle football has a lot of potential to grow with the amazingly talented freestylers we have here — we just need to make sure they are given the proper chances to come into the limelight so that the country can acknowledge it as a legitimate game.

Freestyle footballer and previous world champion Séan Garnier of France (centre) gathers with other freestylers, including Areeb Iqbal of Pakistan, on Lion's Head in Cape Town to practice skills. Photo: Craig Kolesky/Red Bull

Freestyle footballer and previous world champion Séan Garnier of France (centre) gathers with other freestylers, including Areeb Iqbal of Pakistan, on Lion’s Head in Cape Town to practice skills. Photo: Craig Kolesky/Red Bull

Can Pakistani kids get involved in it easily? And do beginners need a lot of mentoring and training?

Yes, awareness among the youngsters is increasing fast, especially after the RBSS. Before that only a few were doing it Pakistan, but now many young talented kids are coming up with good freestyle videos and showing interest and passion towards the game. The best thing about freestyle is its freedom. You don’t have to organise yourself and think, “I will practice daily for four hours or so,” and get bogged down in big plans; just do freestyle when you feel like doing it. The important thing is to stay determined and dedicated to what you are doing because people who are successful in freestyle are those who never quit. So basically belief in oneself, dedication and determination are the things that will take you further in this sport.

What about traditional team football — do kids have to choose between the two in order to excel at one?

“Football is an art, a freestyler is an artist.” Field football and freestyle can go hand in hand, but at the same time they can’t. It depends on what a person is really into. It’s not always necessary that a freestyler is a good field player too and vice versa. There are football players such as Ronaldinho who do both, but then again their emphasis on freestyling is not that much. Sooner or later a footballer has to choose one of the two because both are very different sports and managing them together can get real hard.

How many hours a day do you practice and describe your practice routine.

Whenever I am free, I just go pick my ball up, switch on the music and start freestyling. I always try to do something different from what the rest of the world is doing. In my sessions, I try to think the unthinkable and then try to do it. I want to break all the boundaries because freestyle is all about your imagination and I think everything is possible with practice.

Music also plays a key factor in my routines. I try to synchronize my moves to the beat of the music because I want to express freestyle as an art form and getting my tricks flowing with the music makes my technical tricks artistically true. I am also interested in freestyle basketball and b-boying [breakdancing], so sometimes I try to mix all of the three arts together to make something new.

Will your practice routine change based on your experiences in South Africa, based on what you saw and learnt?

To a certain extent, yes. But I don’t want to copy anyone and always prefer to keep my originality. I want to keep my own style and will always do what I want to do, not what other people want to see from me because at the end that’s what really completes me as a freestyler.

You also attend university: you are in your second semester doing electrical engineering at FAST-National University of Computing and Emerging Sciences in Karachi. How do you balance your studies and freestyle?

Managing my studies along with freestyle is among the biggest hurdles for me. There’s always a clash between studies and freestyling, but I try to balance both. I don’t bind myself to fixed times for practicing, so on days when I have classes or exams, I practice at home and at any time I want.

Where do you want to take your freestyling career? Are there more competitions in store for Areeb?

Freestyle as a career is one of my dreams. But it is really hard to continue this art without the proper [institutional and public] support. Of course, I do have support from my family. Initially it was hard for my parents to understand. But they gave in to let me follow my dream. And when they saw all my achievements, they realised how serious I was and became even more supportive. My parents are the biggest motivation behind me and I am really grateful that I have such awesome parents.

Now I will never quit freestyling, that’s for sure. I will always be willing to do as much as I can to promote freestyling in Pakistan because that’s what I really want to do. My main aim is to be a source of inspiration to all those aspiring young kids who want to get in this sport.

So wherever there will be freestyle you will definitely find me there. RBSS was just a “hello” to the entire world from my side.