ON THE BALL
At just 18 Liv Cooke literally has the world at her feet. The Lancastrian is the current Freestyle World Champion, who now tours the globe showing off her unrivalled skills, writes David Fearnhead. Photography: Adam Docker
It started as a distraction. Something to do whilst a back injury ruled Liv Cooke out of playing football. However it soon developed into an obsession. The hours spent practicing a single trick would grow along with the difficulty.
Every challenge was met, mastered and eventually surpassed.
Liv began her footballing career the conventional way. Her talent showed early. Signed by Preston North End when she was just 10 years old, she went on to captain her high school girls’ team, and by 14 had been signed by Blackburn Rovers School of Excellence.
“It was never that I couldn’t make it as a footballer,” says Liv. It’s the question she is asked the most, ‘Why did she choose to give up playing professional football?’
“I played with some of the players who are currently in the Manchester City title winning team. It was more that I kept picking up a bad back injury. It was so frustrating. So whilst I wasn’t playing football I’d have my ball in my garden and try to improve my control. Over time I started to get pretty good at these tricks.”
The first time she saw a freestyler perform live it changed everything. She would probably have made it in football albeit with an injury-affected career, but freestyle gave her another option.
“I was blown away the first time I saw someone freestyle. Instantly it just opened up a whole new world. I just fell in love with it. I tried to juggle both freestyle and football for a while, but training in both with such intensity, I just kept getting injured. I had to choose and I went with freestyle.”
Her rapid rise has been remarkable. Less than three years separates her trying out tricks in her back garden and becoming the best in the world at just 18. To the outside observer she could be mistaken for any normal teenager, but engage her in conversation and it’s quickly clear this is a woman on a mission. Being Freestyle World Champion is just the beginning.
“I think some guys are intimidated by me. If I do a show with a male freestyler even though I’m a World Champion with a higher ranking, he’ll still want the public to think he’s better because he’s a guy. Whereas in reality I’m actually better. Some still think that girls can’t play football, and can’t do tricks, so when they see us they are amazed.”
Like most major sports, freestyle is divided by gender, but Liv says she’d welcome the challenge of taking on the men: “During the final the commentator kept mentioning that I could compete with the guys because my level was so high. If the opportunity arose I wouldn’t turn it down, it’s just whether I’d be allowed to. I would like to see how I go.”
Becoming World Champion was a culmination of a training schedule that would see her train for five hours a day, six days a week. Nobody just picks up a ball and is instantly brilliant. It’s a taught talent. The competition itself saw her up against the best of the best in an open competition. Liv describes it akin to a street dance battle – the competitors face up one on one over three 30 second rounds. You can’t afford to waste time, you can’t afford to make mistakes.
“I went through the qualifying stages, the group stages, the quarters, the semis and then the final. It’s done over a week,” says Liv. “A lot of people think it’s just the harder the trick the better, but other factors affect it. Your style, how you make it look, your execution, is the trick clean – all these other things make a difference.”
She also had a strategic battle plan: “Replying to your opponent is something that a lot of competitors don’t do but I excel in. I’d studied my opposition. Going in the competition I picked out who I thought were the top five and analysed them fully.
“I watched every single battle that they’ve ever done and took notes about their weaknesses and strengths. In many circumstances I even predicted what they were going to do against me. This allowed me to train for the tricks they would do, and when they did them I could reply by doing the trick harder and better.”
Whilst freestyle is revered in Brazil and has blown up in many fellow European countries such as Norway and France, it has yet to make the same impression in England. Here old prejudices linger on as work-rate is often praised whilst showing ball skills is often frowned upon as show-boating.
“In Brazil players such as Neymar and Ronaldinho are all fascinated by skills and they support freestyle. Whereas in England we don’t really have those players that are super skilful, who push freestyle.”
Even now when Liv tells people she’s a freestyler they often mistakenly think she’s a swimmer: “I was a little surprised when I came home from winning the World Championship how little fuss there was. A lot of the other champions go home and the media is all over it, but here it’s different and I think it comes from the culture.”
“I feel like our media is very negative these days. Someone can win something major and journalists are searching for some dirt on them. Whereas in countries like Norway it’s all very positive and they are praising success. Maybe that’s down to the celebrity culture that exists here. I’m not saying that it’s necessarily the journalists fault because they are just giving the people what they want. Unfortunately that seems to be more of the negative stuff.”
Though England may not be affording her the true recognition she deserves, Liv has been recognised by UEFA. She now works as a roving ambassador using her freestyle skills to promote Women’s Football as part of the We Play Strong campaign.
“One of my favourite trips has been the Euro Tour with UEFA and getting to see the top seven pitches in Europe. The first one was in Switzerland, which was the highest pitch in Europe. It was at the top of the Alps which was crazy. I also played in Norway with the Hegerberg sisters on a pitch that was just in the middle of water. Probably Croatia stood out for me, I absolutely loved it. They had some urban-style pitches where they filmed the TV show Game of Thrones.”
“And Japan, there was such a friendly welcome there. Lots of freestylers came out to meet me and give me gifts. I got to see the Japanese culture and that’s one thing with freestyle you get to travel the world but you don’t just travel there you’re welcomed in every country. Fellow freestylers will want to show you around.”
Follow Liv’s latest adventures at: www.livcookefreestyle.com