“Dreaming and persevering made me a panna champion”

On October 14, the crème de la crème of Belgian street football gathered at Bozar in Brussels for the final of the 2017 ENGIE Street Heroes tournament. A few hours before the matches started, we caught up with Ilyas Touba, the title-holder and triple world champion. He told us about his passion for this sport, which is gaining in popularity.

ENGIE Street Heroes jbc sli
ENGIE Street Heroes jbc sli
Among others, Ilyas Touba, Soufiane Bencok, Séan Garnier, Evrim Nallar
ENGIE Street Heroes jbc sli
ENGIE Street Heroes jbc sli

Belgium is the birthplace of street football, or panna. The rules of this new-generation freestyle football are as follows: a match lasts three minutes and is played one-on-one or two-on-two. The player or team that manages to pass the ball between their opponent’s legs – a move known as a panna (or nutmeg) – wins the match. If, at the end of three minutes, no one has scored a panna, the winner is whoever has scored the most goals. Ilyas Touba is the defending champion of the national tournament ENGIE Street Heroes.

Ilyas, where did you get this passion for panna?

Ilyas Touba: “I always loved football. Like all the kids in my neighbourhood, I spent most of my childhood outdoors, playing in the street after school. But when I played in clubs, my technique wasn’t suited to traditional football. I loved doing tricks and nutmegs too much, like Ronaldinho. I never passed the ball to my teammates, or not enough. All I wanted to do was play with the ball. I tried indoor football but it was no different. Then one day my coach at the time told me that if I liked playing individually, I was made for freestyle! Then I met Soufiane Bencok, the Belgian champion at the time. We trained together and I knew straight away I had found my sport!”

When exactly did you start?

I.T.: “Actual panna? Just four years ago. My passion for the sport has pushed me to give my best, which is why, in just a few short years, I’ve had a lot of success and won titles in Belgium and abroad. Hard work and passion, that’s the key!”

What does it take to become a triple world champion?

I.T.: “Hard work, perseverance and passion. That’s all that matters! I train six days a week, at least five hours a day. Sometimes I go to training at 9 a.m. and leave at 9 p.m. I try to balance it as well as I can with my other hobbies and with going out with my partner and friends.”

Panna and traditional football are very different…

I.T.: “Yes, very different! A panna match takes place on a small pitch six metres in diameter with two mini goals, and it’s one-on-one. The spectators don’t come to see a match, they come for the show! We offer a different discipline, which is more freestyle, more of a performance. It’s mainly for the fans! A nice pass, a nutmeg, and the spectators cheer and shout. It’s brilliant. Despite the crazy atmosphere pitchside, the panna technique requires great concentration. When I play, I’m 100% focused on the ball. I’m inspired by the sounds vibrating around me, I feel them, and they spur me on to give my best.”

Have you talked panna with the Red Devils yet?

I.T.: “More than once! Not only do the Red Devils know me but they’ve already played panna with me. They love it and I love playing with them. Some big clubs are even contacting me to run events. Kevin De Bruyne played with me once. Our video has been viewed over one million times on YouTube. I’ve also played panna with Dries Mertens and Ousmane Dembélé, which are great memories!”

Who would you say is the Cristiano Ronaldo of panna?

I.T.: “Me? (laughs) With every title, my popularity will surely keep growing but I’d like to use this success to inspire teenagers and children. I know what it’s like to spend your childhood on the street and play with the ball for hours. I hope I can make them want to train and excel. Young people like to follow me and come up to me. I don’t think they’ll contradict me: I want to be 100% generous and available to my fans, big and small.”

You won ENGIE Street Heroes in 2016. Is that a good memory?

I.T.: “Of course! This tournament is magical. It allows young people to discover the sport. It’s a huge tournament, which is fantastic. We prepare for it like crazy. Children and teenagers come to cheer us and get inspired. Every effort is made to ensure that the spectators have an amazing time, just like we do! This tournament is really boosting the sport’s popularity in Belgium.”

What’s your prediction for the 2017 event, do you have a winner in mind?

I.T.: “Yes, me! I’m 100% ready, I’ll give my everything. I couldn’t be more motivated.” (Editor’s note: Ilya was right, he did indeed win the tournament for the third time)

Do you travel a lot with panna?

I.T.: “Just take a look at my passport! (laughs) I’ve travelled all over the world with panna: Mexico, Japan, Iceland, the Netherlands, and the list goes on. My best memories are of Poland: the fans go really mad as soon as you arrive. Belgium’s many wins have made us one of the most renowned nations in the sport.”

You are 20 years old. What are your plans for the future?

I.T.: “At the moment, the most important thing for me is to use my fame to increase the sport’s profile and popularity in Belgium. I’d like as many young people as possible to know about panna. I’m planning on posting more and more videos on my YouTube channel, tutorials for children, etc. They’re my focus! In the longer term, I’d like to open an acadamy. My goal is for today’s kids to become better than me!”

Should we finish with your motto?

I.T.: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way! Dreaming and persevering – that’s really what got me where I am today.”

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