Think football, think sprinting after the ball, weaving through the opponent's defences, sliding tackles, twists and turns, vying for the ball in the air, throw ins, curling free-kicks... phew!
So, when you hear about 'walking football', it almost sounds like an oxymoron. But, apparently, it is not so. First played in 2011 by the Chesterfield FC Community Trust, walking football has more than 800 clubs in the country today. What really set the ball rolling, literally, for the sport was a 2014 Barclays TV advertisement, which talked about the positive aspects of the game. In a little over four years, this format of the game has grown by leaps and bounds in the UK. So much so that the English Football Association (FA) is now drawing up a rulebook to standardise the game.
Walking football was invented to get the 50-year-olds off from their couches on to the field. It is also a boon in disguise for those whose careers were cut short by injuries or those with whom age has caught up and so, find it difficult to keep pace with the fast-paced game.
Steve Rich, 55, for instance, had to quit the game at 26 due to an injury. He took to walking football for the love of the game and describes it as “a wonderful feeling”. He started the Walking Football United website as platform where all the clubs in the UK can connect with each other. The response has been overwhelming, to say the least.
Now, about the game. As the name suggests, the essential difference is that, unlike normal football, you are not allowed to run in walking football. That is, one foot must be on the ground all the time. Sounds easy, huh?
Not really, as the players would tell you. The urge to break into a run, or at least a jog is overwhelming. But, that would attract a free kick for the opponent team. And that is bone of contention in the game—judging whether it's a quick walk, or a jog or a proper run. The rules differ here, with some clubs allowing two warnings before awarding the free kick. And there's also a two-minute sit-out. This is where FA's rulebook will come handy.
The other rules of the game—which is played with 5-7 players in each side—too, differ in different regions. For instance, while, at some clubs, the ball is not to be kicked above head height, some others lower the limit to waist height. Free-kicks can be both direct and indirect at some clubs, while only indirect ones are taken at others. The number of touches a player must take before passing the ball, too, differs. Some play it with minimal contact, while others do not mind a hard tackle here and there. Absence of off-side rule and kick-ins instead of throw-ins are some of the common rules followed in the game everywhere.
The joy of playing football and exercise apart, what attracts the players to walking football is the chance to socialise, and friendships often go beyond the field.
With major English Premier League clubs encouraging the game, and with stalwarts like Alan Shearer, Harry Kane, Sir Geoffrey Hurst playing in promotional matches, the future of walking football looks bright.