JACK DOWNER: LIVING IN GOOD FAITH
Words by Greg Richardson | Tw. @RAKIS14
“Existence precedes essence”
These are the words of 20th Century French Philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre. The basic breakdown of which is at the heart of the philosophical concept of existentialism - a thought process that states there is no purpose to human existence. That many people follow the crowd or conventional wisdom rather than their own path but that in reality we are completely free to define ourselves. We just have to have faith in ourselves . Be willing to live with the consequences of our choices.
Having studied the subject, it is a philosophy that street footballer and ‘influencer’ Jack Downer (@street_panna) is not only aware of, but one that he has begun to fully embody.
At 21, Downer has over a quarter of a million followers on his Instagram account, has won a number of national and international street football competitions and is part of Adidas’ Tango Squad F.C - complete with its own YouTube series. Not bad for a lad from Thanet in Kent, who, by his (and his P.E teachers) own admission was nowhere near the best player in his year at school. It is a life he has created for himself.
“I think the first and foremost it is about having that mindset where you are open to new things and opportunities”. He told NPLH. His open mindedness can be best summed up by how this whole journey started.
At the age of 14, Jack was a promising right back garnering interest from Charlton Athletic. One day, he was playing a practice game against some of the older players of his local team.
“One of the guys went to shoot, I took it off him and did some trick to get around him and away. Some of the other players reacted. Gave it a bit of the “wheeey!”, you know. So he tripped me and stamped on my ankle. I was out for eight months, had to have an operation and Charlton dropped all contact with me. After that I didn’t really want to get back into 11-aside football. For a start it felt like that route had been closed off (Charlton are the biggest side that really look at young players in his area and they’d washed their hands of him) and to be honest, there were parts of 11-aside football I didn’t like.”
“I still loved football though and played for my school team. But I’d always loved the skills and tricks most of all. I used to watch YouTube videos of players like Ronaldinho religiously, be inspired and take the ball outside to practice them”
Far from ready to abandon the game, but equally unwilling to bow to convention and accept the opinion that says 11-aside is the only route to the top of the game, Jack just needed an opportunity that would enable him to do something with his talents. When it came, it was an opportunity he didn’t immediately recognise.
At a family get together, an Uncle told him about a football ‘club’ that met at the town hall in Broadstairs, just around the corner from Jack’s house. “I didn’t want to go. I was already doing after school things most evenings and it just sounded a bit weird that they’d meet in the town hall.” Fortunately, Mum wanted him out the house and playing football again, for both their sakes.
“She told me I was going, gave me a pound and walked me down to the town hall. There were just four kids there and a coach called Yofi. It turned out that it was a street football club! There was a kid from the year below at school there who had been going for a few months and he panna’ed (nutmegged) me three or four times. I wasn’t having that so I practiced all week, went back and was able to nutmeg all of them. From there, my love of it has just grown and grown.”
A year and a half later, Jack went to the European Championships in Brussels and then the World Championships in Amsterdam, finishing top 32 in both and defeating many a top ranked athlete along the way. He followed this by doing some videos with his coach Yofi on his channel Yo Street Zone, before parting ways as other projects opened up for him. He shot videos with groups like Global Freestyle and featured in a music video doing tricks. One of these videos (of Jack nutmegging a police officer) has since surpassed a million views. Every one of them showcases his exceptionally quick feet, his technique and his creativity, and how much he loves it all.
It was around this time that I first became aware of Jack Downer the street footballer. To this point, he had simply been a student I had taught at GCSE level, who sat at the back of my class forever distracted by games like New Star Soccer and Football Manager on his phone. A student who had chosen to do philosophy in sixth form and who, despite some good insight, was struggling to get essays handed in on time. A chat with Jack and his Dad revealed that a contributing factor to the lateness of his work was the fact that he was often busy entering street football competitions all over Europe. It earned him not just as much leniency as I could give him, but a great amount of respect. Most pupils struggle with the workload at sixth form, Jack was doing it whilst living a second life.
In the end, the lad who can balance on his tiptoes on top of a football, unsurprisingly, found the right balance between school and competition. He finished the course getting the highest grade in the class. Jack then headed to London for University.
“When I got to London, is when I got involved in the Adidas Tango League competitions. My mate, Scott, got me into it because I was actually a bit late to it all, but he gave me a code that got me into the messaging chat, which is how you find out about the competitions. I won one, got on really well with everyone in the Adidas Tango squad in London and then entered the Tango league, at which I was named MVP, despite our team not winning a game. I think the ref/judge just liked me because I kept nutmegging people. Then I qualified to go to the global Tango MVP competition and my team won that. I was now on Adidas’ radar, especially as I had done work on set for them across Europe. I was then invited to a trial, it went well, and that’s how I ended up involved with Tango Squad FC.”
As part of Adidas’ Tango Squad F.C, Downer has been part of an ensemble of street footballers from all over the globe. Recruited via the Tango League competitions and global events, this group of youngsters formed a team, coached in the first season by Xabi Alonso, and travelled to the likes of Madrid, Munich, Manchester and Turin to meet professional footballers and learn how to take their individual styles and form a cohesive unit that can play as an 11-aside team. The series culminated with them playing a match at Old Trafford against the F2 Freestylers FC (although Jack nearly missed the main event due to uni exams, arriving at Old Trafford not long before kick-off).
The journey to Old Trafford involved meeting an array of stars from Pjanic and Bentancur at Juventus, Javi Martinez and James Rodriguez at Bayern, Marcelo and Gareth Bale in Madrid and Pogba, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard of United. Along the way, he also played in a rooftop match with David Beckham to aid the re-launch of the Adidas Predator.
As the new season approached the squad was cut back to just 5 members. Jack was retained. The survivors were then flown out to Moscow during the World Cup to entertain crowds and to watch a Adidas Global event to scout for new teammates. Whilst there Jack played in a Panna cage against the public. In front a huge poster of himself. A real “Mum, I made it moment” and vindication of his choice to pursue this life.
It would be easy to be jealous of Jack. He is living a dream that many couldn’t even imagine. But to call it a dream is to do him a disservice. This is not something that has just happened to him because he won a competition. He works incredibly hard. He is always looking to learn and develop the ‘essence’ of what being Jack Downer means.
“Meeting Beckham was the pinnacle as a moment in isolation. To play on the same pitch as him was unreal...I even managed to set him up for a banger which was pretty cool and I scored 4 this game...but the experiences carry on and as a whole it’s hard to pick a favourite moment. Like, we played games against Rapid Vienna and Real Madrid youth sides and that was an amazing learning experience because those guys are my age and are unreal, so it gives you something to aim for”
“Meeting players is great but that’s not the goal. The goal is to keep learning and take what we can from those experiences to help grow the street football game and community. For example it’s great for me to be able to say ‘I’ve met Paul Pogba a few times’ but that’s not helping anyone. But I have a young lad who follows me on Insta and he sends me these edits he does and he’s a big Pogba fan so next time I meet Pogba I will ask him to give the lad an autograph and I’ll get it to him...it’s better if these things help or inspire others”
“Plus on top of meeting these players, behind the scenes, you’ve got all these design teams and creative directors. It’s great to see how it all really works from taking an idea like ‘Adidas is cool’ and how they make that come across in their designs, products and images, it's been extremely interesting to see this side, and im excited to learn even more from it”
As Jack says all of this, I am struck not only by his maturity (meeting Beckham would reduce me to a dumb struck fan-boy and would be the start of every conversation I ever had for the rest of my life!) but also the joy he has taken from every aspect of his experiences. The lessons he has learnt have caused him to grow not just as a player but a person. It has helped him become more than just a competitive street footballer.
He is without doubt a prominent figure in the genre. He’s Instagram is a combination of videos with pros (Paul Pogba appears more than once, Felipe Anderson features and often likes many of his posts, Frank Lampard has sent him the odd gift), photo in Adidas gear that models would be proud of and footage of him nutmegging members of the public (including a number of merciless panna’s on his girlfriend who is “getting better” Jack tells me with no lack of pride)
“Instagram is like a portfolio for me, Street Panna is me but it’s also my brand. For me to be able to say or show people that I’ve met this player and learnt this from them, I’ve had this experience and learnt from that, met this creative director and we worked on this together etc. and hopefully it inspires other people to take up the sport or to just see that you can do pretty much anything if you work hard at it. It’s partly why I have started doing more tutorials on IGTV, to help get people out there trying things. I always try if I can to reply to people who message me and ask advice or whatever because you’ve got to give back to them for their support...I’ve currently got this older lady from Japan called Kyoko who is following all my tutorials and uploading her videos and all that and she seems to be enjoying it and doing well, so if you can do that for one person that’s pretty cool”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the experiences he has had with one of the biggest brands in football, and his refusal to be just one thing - Jack has been inspired to try his hand in the clothing world. It is both an attempt to explore something he finds interesting but also to help him maintain his own identity within the street football scene. He wants to be seen as a “character outside of the Adidas Tango Squad...if I enter a 1 on 1 panna competition I don’t want people thinking - oh thats an Adidas competitor, I want them to see it as me wearing Adidas or even my own brand”
“I’m working with a guy called Oli, who is an illustrator and has done things for Disney and other huge brands, he is a really creative guy and is also into Futsal, co-owns a The Futsal Shop and has designed all the new Futsal kits for Futsal UK. Im thankful to Oli as he’s helping me with design and in return I’m helping him by being a brand ambassador for them.” Followers of Jack will notice he has an affinity with the ‘HaHaHaHa’ Joker-style lettering and Joker colourings, which is something he hopes to add into his ‘streetwear fashion’. “The clothes themselves will be a tune to the streets, with nice little touches in the detail. There’s no point in having logos all over it when no-one knows what the brand is. Yet” His plan isn’t to sell them and ship them all over the world, but just to put his ideas out there, see what people think and where it takes him.
Whilst observing a waiter in his favourite Parisian Cafe, Sartre once wrote that many of us live in ‘bad faith’, refusing to accept how free we are. The waiter, Sartre argued, was merely playing the role of a waiter and there was literally nothing really stopping him from putting down his tray and note pad and assuming a new role elsewhere.
One could never accuse Jack Downer of living in bad faith. He has played many roles from right back to student to competitor to teacher. “You just need to be open to opportunities,” he repeats again, “To not limit yourself because, really, there are no limits.”