So, walking football, as simple as it sounds?
Yes – as you would imagine, walking football is very similar to the game we all know and love, but without the running. In this six-a side version players must ‘walk’ on and off the ball, although it’s not as slow as you might think. You can ‘walk’ as fast you like, as long as one foot is in contact with the ground at all times. The other key difference is that it’s a non-contact sport. From the outset, walking football has had safety at the top of the list, so crunching slide tackles are reserved for 11-a-side.
Where did it come from?
The game was devised in 2011 by John Croot as a way of keeping the older generation involved in football and improve their health. The sport went mainstream in 2014 after Barclays used it in an advert in the UK – it was thought to be a joke at the time.
So, is it popular?
Very much so. By 2016 there were 800 registered clubs in the UK, and now there are over 1,100 clubs with over 40,000 regular players. More than 11 million people (18.6% of the population) are now aged 65 and older in England and Wales, more than ever before2, so it’s no surprise the number of participants are increasing. The sport has gone global in the past decade - it is now played in over 55 countries, from Australia to Morocco to Uruguay, with hundreds of thousands of participants worldwide. In fact, the game has become so popular that the first ever Walking Football World Cup will be taking place in Derby this year.
But it’s for men, right?
That may have been true in the past, but definitely not now. “I think with older generations it's more natural for men to have played at school,” says Holly Small, who plays at a number of walking football clubs including Watford and Cheshunt. “Women that have never played before our age, to suddenly get into football and feel comfortable on the ball isn’t easy. I've also started playing for a women's squad up at Cheshunt, which is probably the biggest women's squad in the country for walking football. There's over 50 registered players. It's just a safe space for the ladies to go along. In female sport particularly there is a strong gay culture, and there's been a quite a few ladies that have come out. These ladies have been in relationships with men and come out in their 40s or 50s, but because in that environment its quite normal that’s been a help to them and made them feel comfortable. People suddenly feel that actually they're not alone.”
It's also great for socialising.
The opportunity to socialise and make new friends that walking football facilitates is really important, especially for those in their elder years. According to Age UK more than a million older people say they go over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member, so this network is vital.
What other benefits are there?
Firstly, walking football is a low-impact sport. It’s easy on the joints, allowing people to take part without the soreness of a full-blown 11-a-side game. It also means people of all ages and fitness levels are able to take part, the slower pace making it accessible to a much wider audience. Additionally, it offers a way for people to boost their health and well-being, aiding in weight-loss and lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease. Walking football has been associated with helping to reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes by keeping people active. “For me, it's been a massive physical health booster,” says Holly. “I recently had a full medical and my readings now are better than before I was playing, over six years ago. So I turned 50 in October, and now my metabolic age is 30.”
What about the mental health benefits?
“I'm happy to say that walking football has helped me during some challenging times, and I know I'm not alone in that,” says Jonathan Sinfield, walking football player at Watford and international referee. “This is a community that didn't exist 10 years ago, so it's great to see. I’m a board member at Watford, and when we went back for the first time after COVID I was really taken aback by the number of individuals who came up to me and said ‘Jonathan, we really missed this’”. Holly adds: “When you're out on the pitch, that hour or two you're playing football, it doesn't matter what's going on in your life or other people's lives. You're just there to enjoy the football.”
Anything else I need to know?
The walking football community is very supportive of other health concerns too. “Obviously, for me and the ladies I play with we're around menopausal age and there's a lot of challenges with that,” reveals Holly. “There's quite a few going through the worst of the menopause now and there's a few of us that have come out of the other side. So we can recommend different supplements or techniques or whatever, and it’s just a great support mechanism.” There is also a focus on health issues for men, specifically prostate cancer. “The WFA are partners with Prostate UK, so that's something that gets talked about a lot,” says Jonathan. “Unfortunately, we've had a number of players who have had prostate issues, and we've been able to put together people who have experienced that themselves together to help them and guide them through the decisions that they have to make.”
How do I get involved?
With so much walking football worldwide, it is easy to get involved by simply contacting your local club or through your national association. The Federation of International Walking Football Associations (FIWFA) was founded with just five members (England, Italy, Wales, Guernsey, Hong Kong), but now there are 24 members, from India to the Basque Country to Rwanda. If there’s no club near you, perhaps it’s a sign to start your own.