No longer a young man’s game.

Over the last hundred years or so, football, association football, soccer—whatever you want to call it—has slowly, but gradually, taken over the world. In terms of global appeal, participation and viewing figures, there is nothing on the planet that comes close. Like most sports, it can be viewed through two different pairs of eyes.

There is the professional side of things, the pinnacle of which features household names performing jaw-dropping feats for even more jaw-dropping salaries.

Then there is the other side—the side where a few mates gather after a day in the office for their weekly kickabout. For many people around the world, those minutes and hours spent racing across AstroTurf, concrete, tarmac or grass are not just immensely enjoyable, they are also the only meaningful exercise they get.

So, what happens when the joints get too stiff or the limbs too old? Well, there is no longer the need to hang up those boots. Enter stage left: walking football.

The History of Walking Football

Just like its more established sibling, walking football can trace its roots back to the English Midlands. It was devised and first played at the Chesterfield FC Community Trust as recently as 2011. There were several philosophies behind its birth. Men were getting to the age where the pace of the game was either too much for their bodies, or younger, faster, fitter players were dominating the games, making them less enjoyable and uneven contests.

Age categories were one proposed resolution, but this still discounted those who were physically incapable of taking part in the rough and tumble of the “normal” game. The options were to give up, retire to more leisurely pursuits, or come up with a new format of the game they loved—one that would still provide health benefits and the camaraderie and banter that only comes with team sports, especially football.

The sport may have gradually found itself growing in popularity, but it was always restricted to a handful of clubs in England, and it would have remained so, were it not for a catalyst in an unlikely guise. In 2014, an advert for Barclays Bank aired in the UK, featuring the sport. Immediately, interest and participation went through the roof. This impetus was further enhanced in 2017 when Sky Sports made a documentary. Clubs were springing up all over the UK, with many featuring memberships in the hundreds.

As participation increased, so did competitions, both domestically and internationally. In years to come—and not as many as you may think—there might be almost as much talk and speculation about Chesterfield winning the walking football cup as there is about Manchester City winning their first Champions League.

There are alternatives, no matter your age.

The final move for the sport to attain official status came when an official body was set up—the Walking Football Association (WFA). After consultations with referees and clubs, the official rules of the sport were drawn up and then voted on. The latest version of the rules, amended in 2018, is available to download on their website.

The Rules of the Game

It is no surprise that a game that grew up sporadically had almost as many variations as there were teams playing it. However, they all shared one common rule: that running is strictly prohibited (in other words, players must always have at least one foot on the ground). Other rules differed from game-to-game and club-to-club.

For example, there was the issue of contact or no contact, with some opting for a non-tackling version. There was also the question (one that is very much evident in normal 5-a-side) of whether the ball may go over head height. Age is still a big part of the fundamentals of the sport; age categories start at 50, and players are able to play in teams made up of younger players, but not the other way around.

The Game Today

With people ever more aware of the need to exercise—especially those in their twilight years or perhaps looking to take up a sport for the first time—it is no surprise that walking football has gained such popularity so quickly. The UK now has as more than 800 clubs, and it has spread to all parts of the globe. Australia, for example, has very much embraced the sport, with New South Wales alone having more than 7000 registered players over the age of 50.  

It is a sport that can be played both indoors and out, so weather and conditions are no barrier. Neither is age. The sport continues to attract players well into their 80’s, the vast majority of whom have graduated from the original version of the game. If you haven’t heard of it before, don’t worry. It will not be long before a walking football club opens up near you.

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