One of football’s most enduring appeals stems from the fact that it is an adaptive sport. As such, the parameters of the game can shift to accommodate the available conditions so that whatever we mean by ‘football’ is never entirely concretised but always in flux: all that is needed is an available space and, as the old adage goes, ‘jumpers for goalposts’.
As a result, there is a curious connection between the places where we grow up playing the game and our particular style of play. Take the Dutch maestro, Johan Cruyff, for example. There can be little surprise that the slight boy who grew up in the restricted enclosure of Amsterdam’s Betondorp (‘concrete village’) would flourish in a system of totaalvoetbal which sought to manipulate space, exploiting the gaps that appeared in the opposition. In more recent times, there have emerged other footballers who were clearly a product of the places in which they began playing. Mesut Özil honed his skills in an Affenkäfig (‘monkey cage’) in Gelsenkirchen, Lionel Messi would tag along with his older brothers and their friends as they played on the streets of Rosario, and Cristiano Ronaldo has spoken of his own adolescent environment that shaped his playing style.
“The small playing area [he grew up playing in] helped me improve my close control, and whenever I played futsal, I felt free. If it wasn’t for futsal, I wouldn’t be the player I am today.”
Following in this lineage of street footballers is a youngster who is quietly becoming a stalwart for TSG 1899 Hoffenheim. Nadiem Amiri was born twenty years ago in Ludwigshafen, Germany to Afghan parents. At around the age of seven, he started playing on what he calls a ‘football field’ in the Mundenheim area of Ludwigshafen. If you go to Ludwigshafen, it can still be found there.
Amiri himself admits that calling it a football field is a bit of a stretch. “It’s actually a stone floor, dust and dirt everywhere.”
This rudimentary playing field has stayed in the youngster’s mind, though. When asked to describe himself in an interview with German website bolzplatzkind in 2016, he replied ‘Straßenköter?’ (‘street mongrel’) before laughing and plumping on ‘Straßenfußballer’ (‘street footballer’).
For his mind to move immediately to the portmanteau Straßenköter as a self-appraisal evokes a sense of what it must have been like for the young émigré growing up in Germany: the joy of football in the street tinged with the constant reminder that his life spanned two disparate cultures. Moving the ball around a makeshift pitch on that narrow strip of concrete with his friends, Amiri became inculcated in the art of Straßenfußball: the economy of space, the absence of any time on the ball, and the peculiar geography of the playing surface.
Like many players before him, then, the unique space that formed the background of Nadiem Amiri’s playing career bequeathed him with a particular aptitude for spatial manipulation. The cramped enclosure of Mundenheim was preparing him for a career as a Raumdeuter, to steal Thomas Müller’s neologism: a space investigator. It can be little surprise that on the pitch, Amiri finds himself inhabiting a similar space to Müller: the pocket of space that opens out in between the lines of defence and midfield.
This proclivity for space is reflected in his statistics at Hoffenheim. With 70 Bundesliga appearances already under his belt for the Baden-Württemberg side, Amiri has scored seven and assisted eight, indicating his function as a player who divides his responsibility between scoring and providing. In addition, he is strong on the ball, possesses a good range of passing, and is something of a set piece specialist. Not content to impress on the ball, Amiri is also a strong team player: not one to shirk his defensive capabilities, he is also a fantastic presser of the ball. Because of this, the Hoffenheim starlet was also deployed in a slightly deeper role last season in the central midfield of the 3-4-2-1 formation favoured by his manager Julian Nagelsmann.
Inevitably, Amiri’s domestic success did not go unnoticed by the national team. Having made his debut for the German U21 team in March of this year, Amiri went on to win the U21 European Championship with the team, regularly featuring as a substitute throughout the tournament. Yet despite his strong showing for the U21s, the youngster was left out of Bundestrainer Joachim Löw’s squad for the Confederations Cup, an omission that might have upset Amiri given the experimental nature of the eventual squad.
Ever present for Achtzehn99 in the Bundesliga so far this season, though, Nadiem Amiri is certainly one to watch for the future. And with Hoffenheim continuing to confound expectations under Julian Nagelsmann, it is likely that the son of Afghan immigrants will be on the radars of a lot of big clubs around Europe. So despite the fact that he now finds himself a long way from the concrete pitch that he grew up playing on in Ludwigshafen, the little Straßenköter from Mundenheim may soon be peddling his own unique brand of Straßenfußball on the world stage.
By: Jon Mackenzie/@Jon_Mackenzie