A new association in Brittany is hoping to introduce a new sport to France: walking football. President Jeff Smith, who lives in Silfiac, Morbihan, says he and his wife, Sheelagh, heard about the sport after Fabrice Muamba suffered a cardiac arrest during an FA Cup game and became an ambassador for the sport. It has become immensely popular in the UK, where there are now around 900 clubs.
In France there is only one club but it is already attracting interest. The Foire Internationale at Rennes created a special team to play against the Brittany association in March, to spotlight the sport.
Mr Smith says there are many benefits to walking football: “It is an all-inclusive game, open to all ages and to both men and women. It can also be played by people with disabilities. We really want to stress that we are not just a British group doing our own thing but want it to be open to all people in our area and we do already have French members.
“The matches can be competitive but the real aim is for everyone to enjoy themselves and to improve their skills. It appeals to people who played football in their youth but now want a gentler sport, or to people like my wife Sheelagh who have always wanted to play, but when they were at school, football wasn’t available to girls. I am 68 and most of our players are over 50 but anyone can join in.”
Mr Smith added: “It is very good for the heart and lungs. You don’t get out of breath because you don’t run. But you use a whole range of muscles and improve suppleness and strength. Doctors in the UK are now recommending it for rehabilitation of people after illness or operations.”
So what are the rules? “It is like five-a-side football but with additional factors. We actually usually play with six people on a team and we play around 15 minutes each way. You play it on a 40m x 20m pitch. No running on or off the court for the ball is allowed, and when you have the ball you are limited to three touches to keep the ball moving between players. You can’t kick the ball above head height and you’re not allowed any sliding or heavy tackles. Normally, nobody should get hurt.”
The Brittany Walking Football Association was formed just a year ago, has 20 members and they play once a week. They have invited teams over from the UK and will be playing return matches this year.
Mr Smith would like to see more teams established in France and would encourage anyone to set one up. “We believe there are people playing in the south but we have been informed that we are the first one to set up as a recognised club with all the formalities.
“We pay a one-off registration fee of €44 and membership costs €5, plus €2 for each training session. The local mayors have been very supportive and allowed us to play on an indoor hand ball court. If anyone is interested they can look us up on brittanywalkingfootball.weebly.com”