AS a professional freestyle footballer, Irishman Hoai-Nam Nguyen, 33, has travelled the world performing his amazing repertoire of football tricks and skills.
Starting out as a street performer in Dublin over a decade ago, freestyle football was just something “Nam The Man” did because it happened to earn him more money than waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant.
“I earned about 100 (RM422) in a few hours performing on the street, which is the same amount I earn in an entire day in the restaurant. So I asked myself – freestyle football, or Chinese restaurant?” he said with a laugh.
The rest, as they say, is history. The crowds grew, YouTube came along, and he was soon being invited to perform all over Europe, in the Middle East, in South Africa, and South East Asia – including his parents’ homeland, Vietnam.
But for the past year, Nam has been based right here in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, hoping to help the local freestyle football community grow.
“I plan to stay for at least another year, and do my best to push this sport. There are so many talented freestylers here,” said Nam, who is now the secretary general of the Asian Freestyle Football Federation (AF3), which is part of the global Freestyle Football Federation.
“AF3’s vision is to build an academy to create platforms and opportunities for freestylers all over Asia. We want to create the Ronaldinhos and Maradonas of the future. That’s the long term plan,” he said.
His short term plan, however, is pretty exciting. Nam is now assembling the best freestylers from around South East Asia to form one supergroup, who will then take part in as many “regular” futsal tournaments as they can in the region.
“We want to show people that playing football isn’t all about tactics and winning. It can be fun and stylish. There are so many freestyle skills that can be applied in a football match – especially the ground tricks (freestyle skills that involve moving the ball around on the ground),” he said.
In terms of skills, Nam said Malaysians freestylers are incredibly talented. All they need is some help with the commercial side of things, which he hopes he and AF3 will be able to help out with.
“I used to be really shy, and I wouldn’t do much apart from performing my tricks. But over the years, I’ve learned to overcome that, especially when I was performing on the streets. You really have to learn to engage the crowd,” he said.
Over time, Nam got himself involved in reality series, documentaries and other YouTube videos to help promote the sport around the world.
One series documented his first visit to Vietnam. His parents moved to Ireland during the Cambodian-Vietnamese war, and they didn’t know if they would ever see their homeland again, which is why they named him Hoai-Nam. It means “remembering Vietnam”.
Apart from that, Nam couldn’t really speak any Vietnamese.
But that didn’t stop him from becoming really popular. Before long, they had a nickname for him – circus boy.
“I carry a football with me wherever I go, so when I start performing tricks, people would just point and say ‘hey, it’s the circus boy!’” he said with a laugh. “Nobody knew what freestyle football was at the time.”
A reality show was produced on Nam’s journey through Vietnam, and it was aired on national television.
“The best part about the TV show and the experience was that it wasn’t just about freestyling or football. I really got to experience the culture, the food, and the people while showing them what freestyle is all about,” he said.
For those in Malaysia hoping to pick up freestyle football, Nam said it’s actually really easy: “All you need is a ball, and you can freestyle anywhere you want, anyhow you like.
“It gets addictive because when you can’t achieve a certain trick, you just keep trying until you get it. And once you do, the feeling is amazing. Then you’ll ask ‘what’s next?’ It never stops.”