Street ball, fractions, and romance in southern Italy

Before Johan Cruyff pulled out a turn on a helpless defender that reinvented dribbling, he played a lot of football in the streets. He credits his early days of unstructured play to shaping him as the player he became.

“Everything for me started in the street,” he wrote in his biography. “You see that the kerb isn’t actually an obstacle, but that you can turn it into a teammate for a one–two. So thanks to the kerb I was able to work on my technique. When the ball bounces off different surfaces at odd angles, you have to adjust in an instant.”

You don’t need a perfect pitch to play. You don’t need the latest Mercurials. You don’t need 22 players and a team sheet.

You do need to think quick and improvise. You need creativity, ball control, and a willingness to make mistakes in order to learn.

These were some of the principles behind the founding of Guerrilla FC. Playing should always be beautiful. Romantic. Winning is important but there’s more to the game.

Growing up in the US, we never felt loved by the footballing system, by the federation, by many of our coaches. The principles we brought with us from pickup football or street ball were often overlooked or castigated in favor of athleticism, strength, and uncompromising obedience.

But within every struggle there can be beauty. And a lot of this beauty has come out later on in life in footballing experiences with Guerrilla FC. One of those opportunities emerged last month.

In late July, we were invited to play in a 3v3 street football tournament in Ortigia, an island off of Sicily, which is itself an island. We rallied our crew from a handful of cities and decided we’d meet in Milan and drive a van down to Sicily, stopping in Bologna, Rome, and Naples.

Zak, Hikmet, and Roman flew in from DC. Khoi came from San Francisco and Julian flew over from a town on the Portuguese seaside, where he’d been living for the last three months. Some of us knew each other. Others were meeting for the first time. But in my experience, there are few better ways to build community than connecting over football.

Before the trip though, there was one final friendly. We played a 6-a-side match against Calcetto Eleganza in Milan. It was a close game. I don’t have a lot of details because I had to fly back to the US for a last minute project (more on that in the coming months!). But we ran out winners.

A victory on a European team’s home turf will often also come with a newfound level of respect. Nonetheless, it’s always interesting being an American and playing abroad. You’re always underestimated as a player. Whenever I step foot on a pitch, I don’t say where I’m from until after the game. Whether in Milan, London, or Beirut, the questions are usually the same. “Where did you learn to play like that? I thought Americans don’t play football?”

While we absolutely had a youth club structure in the US, the truth is a lot of players like us developed through playing unstructured street ball. And this is where we thrive.

When we pulled up to the 3-a-side pitch in Ortigia for the final, we had some interesting competition.

Calcetto Eleganza (Milan) brought some of their top players and were looking for revenge. The local team from Ortigia (going by the name of the festival - Ortigia Sound System) had a battle-first mentality in the style of Marco Materazzi. There was also Le Ballon FC, a team from Paris that included former Manchester United striker David Bellion.

We started hot. Three unanswered goals gave us the lead against Le Ballon. Most were clever counters, waiting for mistakes before pouncing and finishing into an empty net. But our decision making started to wane. We took desperate shots from distance and ceded possession easily. Le Ballon came back and scored four goals from about as many shots.

Meanwhile, Calcetto beat the team from Ortigia and we were up to face them again. They wanted revenge for losing to us in Milan. They came out with verve and purpose, making dangerous runs in behind our defense.

Before the match, we spoke about small adjustments. If there are no options, hold the ball until they arrive. This paid dividends in the next match. We were calm and Calcetto grew frustrated. It was a hard fought battle. We put a few away. In the end, I remember checking the scoreboard. We’d won 5-0. I had thought it’d been a lot closer.

Up until this point, most of the goals scored were either precise hits from long distance or capitalizing on screw ups (though there was a silky Bellion drag that nutmegged a defender and cooly rolled into the net). But the more we played, the more we grew in confidence.

In our last game against Ortigia, we started to show more swagger on the ball. More flair and skill came to the forefront. They scored first, but we equalized quickly. I deftly lifted the ball through a gap of two defenders. It was intended as a pass, and it was a good one too. But Zak saw it going in and let it run. We slipped by Ortigia 2-1 and ended the group stage in first place.

We’d replay Ortigia (the 4 seed) in the semifinals. They scored first again on a long distance chip. It was then we started to turn on the sauce.

When in the heat of a match, the brain takes in incredible amounts of information. Good players are able to process this information and make good decisions. Great players, according to certain studies, are constantly surveying the pitch, their teammates, opponents and everything else going on so they can take in more information and make more informed decisions. It’s been said that Lionel Messi spends the first 10 minutes of matches with Barcelona simply watching the game so he can figure out where best to move and have an impact.

Even at 32, Messi is arguably head and shoulders better than any other player on earth. But that lead has been built by an accumulation of fractions. He’s not faster than Adama Traore. He’s not stronger than Sergio Ramos. He may be more technical than anyone else, but is he that far above Paul Pogba or Hatem Ben Arfa in skill alone? It’s the fractions, along with the speed of thought and ability to make the right decision at the right time that makes Messi who he is.

But outside the hallowed grounds of La Liga and the Premier League, on a makeshift pitch drawn by tape, on an island off an island in southern Italy, similar fractions came into play and made the difference.

Down 0-1 to Ortigia, I picked up the ball on the left side of the court. I surveyed the pitch but saw no clear path to goal.

I stepped over the ball with my right foot with the knowledge it would freeze the defender just enough that I could push the ball slightly forward and open a passing lane to Khoi.

After the step over, I waited for the second defender to come toward me. As he did, I timed my pass so that the defender’s weight would be on his front foot. This would allow me to accelerate past him and into space.

As the ball came to Khoi, he saw the defense shift his way and opening a lane to me. A one-time pass right back to me in space was all that was needed. It came back to me, I adjusted in an instant and finished. 1-1.

We kept pushing for another. Shot after shot hit the post or required a last ditch block from Ortigia. Step overs and no look passes came out of our lockers, but everything with purpose.

At 1-1, Roman chipped a ball out of the back. Khoi brought it down and ran at goal. He pulled the ball back with his left foot and spun to heal it with his right. It deflected wide to Julian, who rolled the ball with the bottom of his foot to get away from the defender and find space.

Julian reset the attack with a backpass to Roman, who was playing the fulcrum near our own goal. Roman played it on the right side to Khoi, shifting the defense about.

Khoi took his touch back to the goal and gave it back to Roman, drawing the defense even further in. Roman needed just two touches - he paused the ball with his left and putted it with his right - to now find Julian who had started moving down the left. The ball movement had lured in the defenders. One was on Julian but the other two had pushed up higher to try and stop the passing.

Khoi made a darting run forward, calling for the ball. Julian made a one-touch pass into Khoi’s feet. The defender came toward Khoi, who used the ball like a carrot at the end of a string on a stick.

A small roll brought the defender closer and opened up just enough space for an outside the foot pass, back into Julian’s path. Now alone with the goal, Julian’s only option was to score.


2-1. They would equalize. And we won on penalties. But those two moments were without a doubt the highlights of the tournament.

In the final, we would face Calcetto again. They scored early and the game came to a suspiciously early end. We didn’t come for the silver medal, but to be honest, we never come with a medal in mind. We play to express ourselves, to express a bit of joy and flair, and that was accomplished.

The spirit of those unstructured games as youth emerged from our pasts. The flicks that often are beaten out of an adult player’s game were in abundance. And much like Cruyff in the ’74 World Cup, we lost a final to a team we’d previously beaten while remaining steadfast to our playing ideals.

I started Guerrilla FC because I never felt my voice, my playing style, or my personality was welcome in the topdown world ran by the USSF. Those same qualities that made us outcasts as youth brought us success in Ortigia. But again, it’s not about winning. It’s about playing beautiful. It’s about the romance.

By Justin Olivier Salhani, Guerrilla FC founder