London-based Jack Downer is a world champion Panna player. He gives Professional Player the lowdown on the street soccer sport that is rapidly taking off around the globe and reveals how it can help professional players in the 11-a-side game…
So in a nutshell… Panna is a super-fun, super-fast, three-minute game where the rules couldn’t be simpler – just kick the ball through an opponent’s legs to win [Panna] or if that doesn’t happen, score the most goals to win. There’s no hiding place; in a 90-minute game you might get a breather or two, but here you’re out to own the ball, to own the game. It’s got the cage soccer vibe to it, the playground vibe to it – and they are the places where I want everyone to be playing it!
I got into street soccer… when I was about 14 years old. I was playing 11-a-side for my local team, got injured, and after eight months or so on the sidelines, I just fell out of love with the game. When you’re that age you can go one of two ways, and my mum pushed me to get back into football to stay on the right track.
There was a club that played at our local town hall and it was street football. I was hooked! It got to the point where I was training every day for three years; then I went to university in London five years ago, and since then I’ve just been nutmegging everyone across the city and showing that street skills are for real!
To beat your opponent at Panna… You’ve always got to be creative and keep pushing the boundaries. While there are opponents who will have the same tricks in their locker, I’m 99% sure that the ones I’ve devised are the original – and I’ve been the first to post them online. The feedback on my socials is always really positive.
I’m always adding intricate details, which the fans who have been following for a while can see, although everyone will tell you my favourite trick is still an old-school one called the Ankle Breaker – it’s my trademark move where you stand on top of the ball on your tip-toes. Not easy!
The first professional to inspire me was… Ronaldinho. I remember watching his iconic crossbar challenge on YouTube and also his Joga Bonito video. I was mesmerised! I was also a big fan of Gareth Bale as he moved up the pitch from full-back to winger, which is something I also did when I was younger. I’ve been fortunate to meet and play with so many stars: Gareth, David Beckham, Paul Pogba, the list goes on… and I’m proud to say I have nutmegged Riyad Mahrez – he is technically insane, so that was a proud moment! Shout out also to Edward van Gils, the don of street soccer. Without him, we wouldn’t be here today.
Like everyone else, the pandemic has had an impact… and it’s therefore not been as manic a year as it usually is. To help pass the time, I trained a ridiculous amount through the first lockdown – in fact, I overdid it as I had nothing else to do, so by the time it got to the World Championships, I was suffering from more injuries and that impeded me in the end. I’ve learnt my lesson though and since September I’ve been focusing more on my strength and nutritional work and trying to be in the best shape possible coming this year’s World Championships, which are taking place in Denmark, the Czech Republic and Holland.
Another challenge has to try to find courts to play on due to the COVID-19 restrictions… and socially distanced training in a multi-storey car park has not been ideal, certainly not when you’re tracked down by other ballers on social media and then the authorities get a whiff of what you’re doing! I’ve been fortunate, though, as I’ve also been training in a more lenient Amsterdam, at an indoor facility called the King’s Dome – which has been the spiritual home of street soccer for the past 25 years. Amsterdam has got a vibe and a passion for the game-like nowhere else I’ve been.
‘There is definitely a crossover to be had with the professional 11-a-side game… and I’ve had lots of talks with players about coaching them one-to-one’
I want to bring that ethos to the UK… by bringing an indoor facility to London – which would become our
own hub. I want to create something that’s football orientated, with the facilities and training side, but which can also be a game-changer in terms of being a communal focal point for street fashion, music, culture, whatever. We want professionals down there in their chosen field who can inspire the next generation while providing a safe environment at the same time. It would be a place that doesn’t discriminate against gender, age, religion – it’s something that will only have a positive impact and our plans are progressing well.
The Panna community is growing all the time… and that’s largely down to how we position ourselves with regards
to social media. The main reason I started Instagram wasn’t to document my skills but to interact with the community which is now so expansive across the world.
I have friends in Belgium, Denmark and Japan, for instance, and we’re trading off skills and always trying to better each other. It’s a team effort really because we take inspiration from each other.
Most of the time when I’m competing, for example at the World Championships, I’ll have a host of comments saying, ‘That was a good move’ but I will have no recollection because it’s all in the moment. It’s only when I watch it back and I’ll be, ‘Oh wow, yeah that was pretty good!’ and it grows from there. We saw the way skating blew up and the aim for me is to get Panna to receive similar recognition.
I can also see the Panna format developing… which would make it more engaging for a wider audience. What would be cool would be to make it more of an MMA type of circuit, a world tour where the top 32 or top 16 players participate on each continent to showcase the sport. It would make the characters on the scene even bigger and once we show their stories, we can have the same storylines that MMA has.
There is definitely a crossover to be had with the professional 11-a-side game… and I’ve had lots of talks with players about coaching them one-to-one. If the players can perform in a high-pressure situation with two or three players closing them down, and can keep the ball, get out and create space, then that can only be a good thing – likewise, if they’re facing a one-on-one. There are many things that can raise the pro players’ game, such as confidence and ball manipulation, from techniques which I’ve developed. Panna is not just a circus trick for 11-a-side fans, it is something that can be utilised, and I’ve spoken to Callum Hudson Odoi and Kai Havertz about it at Chelsea, and when the restrictions are relaxed more, we’ll test it out.
Finally, I’d say the highlight of my career so far… was becoming the 2020 Superball World Champion, but as I’ve described, there is so much more for me to achieve in the sport, both on and off the court. This is only the beginning for me and only the beginning for Panna…
Follow world Panna champion Jack Downer @streetpanna