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A Smiles B player shapes up to shoot in Saturday's game against Aston Viñuela.
"Just because we walk, it doesn't mean we're not competitive"

"Just because we walk, it doesn't mean we're not competitive"

The inaugural fixtures of southern Spain's first walking football league were played in Benalmádena Pueblo on Saturday

FRANK GAVURIN

Monday, 25 November 2019, 19:05

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The ball sails through the crisp November air towards the net, but Ronnie Waugh, shielded from the midday sun by his cap, handles it expertly, and rolls the ball out to a defender.

With their opponents still committed forward, the football fan in me wants, and half-expects, a swift counter attack from Ronnie's side. But this is something of an unrealistic prospect; after all, running is strictly prohibited in this sport.

Welcome to southern Spain's first walking football league. On Saturday, Benalmádena Pueblo's sports centre hosted the first set of matches in the Blue Sky Marbella league, which brought together Walking Football Spain (WFS), Smiles Calahonda (both of whom fielded an A team and a B team) and Aston Viñuela, to play four games in a competition which from now on will have one fixture a month.

Though this is the first walking football league in the country's south - in fact, Smiles' Gray Salt is insistent it is the first such league in Spain full stop - the sport has had a presence on the Costa del Sol for a while. The aforementioned clubs (along with The Walking Dead, who sat out the opening round of matches) have carried out plenty of laudable charity work over the past few years - raising nearly 3,000 euros for a La Viñuela woman with cancer last month, is just one example.

This is not surprising for a sport where the emphasis is on community and participation. When walking football was set up in the UK around a decade ago, one of the main objectives was to tackle the loneliness crisis among older men. All of the players I spoke to were keen to emphasise the social aspect of the sport.

"It's a sport for everyone. For a start, it's a great cure for loneliness. People who may have been recently widowed, or don't really have a friendship group - it's a great thing for them to get involved with," Gray tells me.

An inclusive sport

It is worth mentioning, however, that although the sport may have initially been directed at men, this league is open to all. Only one woman currently plays in the tournament, for Aston Viñuela, but this is a figure the organisers will be looking to boost. Ronnie is confident that greater female participation will come naturally, especially with the increasing focus on women's football in recent times: "It's only a matter of time until one or two women turn up at our training sessions, and we'd make them welcome, of course. Hopefully, in time, we'll get a women's team together."

What is walking football?

  • Walking football is a sport which began in the UK in 2011. The premise is fairly simple with a few other minor tweaks, it is simply football where running is penalised with a free kick to the other side. There are some areas of controversy in the rules - some favour an age-restricted game, while others think it should be open to all; some believe it should be non-contact, while others see room for some physicality.

  • The sport began as an attempt to tackle loneliness and physical inactivity among older men. Its profile was hugely raised by a 2014 Barclays advert which featured walking football, and it has since become enormously popular in the UK, where there are now over 1,000 clubs registered, and a Walking Football Association.

The inactivity that walking football aims to challenge is physical as much as it is social. Sedentary lifestyles are all too common, especially among older people, and the players were all enthusiastic about the health benefits that walking football has brought them.

John Ramage, Aston Viñuela's keeper, tells me that he is one of only two players on his side who still plays normal-rules football as well. "The rest couldn't manage it - they have injuries that stop them. It gets them all out, and they're loving it."

The age range is impressive - the league's rules stipulate that all players must be 50 or older (and have the ID to prove it), but Ronnie is still playing in his mid-70s. John says that at Aston Viñuela's Thursday night training sessions "we get people who are nearly 80. And there's about 25 people coming in a small place like Viñuela".

There certainly seems to be no shortage of enthusiasm for walking football on the Costa del Sol, then. In fact, Ronnie told me that WFS may begin to field a third team, such is the level of interest in the new league. But the sport was, after all, born in the UK, and this is where the vast majority of the players come from as well. This is something that the organisers are keen to change

Gray, who speaks excellent Spanish, says the league is crying out for more Spanish participants and is adamant that there would not be a real language barrier.

Official recognition

One challenge the league is facing is the lack of official recognition. Ronnie tells me that the league has sought affiliated status from the regional government's Ministry of Education and Sports, which could bring numerous benefits, including being able to block book venues for training and league matches.

"The problem is, they don't consider it a sport," he says. He believes that getting the imprimatur of the Andalusian Football Federation would be an important step towards official recognition, but that has not been forthcoming. Nor has acknowledgement of the health benefits of walking football on the part of the Andalusian authorities' medical health board.

Nevertheless, with or without the authorities' seal of approval, the players are confident that this British export could take root in Iberian soil. Gray is certainly of this opinion: "Older people here stop playing as well - there's a gap in the market. I don't see any reason why it couldn't be as big here as it is in the UK."

His teammate Carlos Jiménez, who proudly says he's the league's only Spaniard, is equally optimistic. In fluent English, he tells me, "The Spanish are mad for football. The minute the older guys pick up on something like this, they'd just want to run with it."

A perhaps slightly ironic turn of phrase, given the nature of the sport. But what exactly counts as running? Referee Brian Russell tells me that one foot has to be on the ground at any given time. He recognises, however, that as in regular football, there will always be grey areas - and there was certainly no VAR to help him out on Saturday. According to Brian, the main challenge is noticing off-the-ball running. "It's so difficult, believe me. If my assistant hadn't been there today, there would have been a lot more going on behind me which I wouldn't have seen."

On Saturday, the topic of off-the ball running came the closest to making tempers flare. Gray had told me that the game was just as competitive as regular football, and judging by his touchline complaints to Brian in the last of the day's fixtures, it seems he was right.

All the teams would welcome fresh recruits, or even the addition of a new team. But those thinking of joining in should just remember one thing, no matter their haste to sign up: walk, don't run.

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