Tuesday 03 March 2020, 20:18

Fusing football and books to benefit kids

  • 5 March is World Book Day

  • Dan Freedman wrote a popular series of kids’ football books

  • Mandela, Rashford & the Himalayas feature in his story

An aspiring children’s novelist knew gold was buried on her démodé, fingertip-fatiguing typewriter in 1995. Agonisingly, the 29-year-old from England’s south stared at rejection letter after rejection letter. Twelve in total.

Thirteen was, ironically, lucky on J.K Rowling’s fantasy sphere of witchcraft and wizardry. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone began the best-selling book series and third-highest grossing film series in history, and made its wordsmith one of the most influential people on planet blue.

A 29-year-old from England’s south had a Xeroxed tale in 2007.

“It was the time Harry Potter was getting massive, and in my naive mind I thought, ‘If stories about a kid trying to be a wizard can be popular, then surely stories about a kid trying to be a footballer can be popular',” Dan Freedman told FIFA.com.

“I worked for the FA and travelled around the world for seven years with the England team. I went to two World Cups – Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006 – staying in the same hotel as the players, getting to know them. I'd interviewed people like Cristiano Ronaldo. I had, therefore, so many football stories in my head.

“Having spent time with [Steven] Gerrard and [Wayne] Rooney, it was almost like saying, ‘Let’s take that type of character – or even a Gazza – and bring them back'. Imagine what life would have been like at school or at home, if there were difficulties there. So that’s how the first book came about, this character Jamie Johnson.

“I started off with these huge aspirations. Then I was rejected by literally every single publisher in the UK. People didn’t understand it. They were like, ‘What’s the special thing about Jamie Johnson? When it rains does he become a better player?’

“And I was like, ‘No, it’s absolutely the opposite.' He’s a real kid with normal difficulties. His dad is not around, he lives with his mum, his grandfather is his role model, his best friend is a girl called Jack. He’s just a completely normal kid, but then he’s got this incredible ability on the football pitch.

“With each rejection I tried to understand why, so I could try and make it better. Finally, after three years, people did get it and suddenly everyone wanted it.

“I felt like a player in the middle of a transfer battle between lots of clubs! Those rejections, though they were really difficult, improved me as a writer and made it so much more exciting to find out that the book was finally going to be published.”

Jamie Johnson: The Kick Off was released in June 2007. It was gift-wrapped in the UK that Christmas as frequently as Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, FIFA 08, the Doctor Who Dalek Voice-Changer Mask and the PlayStation 3. It kicked off an eight-part book series and an uber-popular BBC TV series, with Steven Gerrard, Gary Lineker and John Stones playing cameos.

“It was exactly what I dreamt of,” said Freedman, “but you don’t always get your dreams to come true exactly how you would have liked. Now it’s a surreal and amazing experience to go into a classroom almost anywhere in the UK – and now other parts of the world, because the TV show has gone pretty much global – and say, 'have you heard of Jamie Johnson?', and see the hands go up.

“It’s gone all the world – from Indonesia to Iceland. One of the best emails I’ve ever got was from a teacher at a school in the Himalayas. He said, ‘The kids in his school have created their own Jamie Johnson club. They read the books and go out and practise their football skills. If you’re ever in the area, we’ll pick you up for Delhi Airport – it’s about a 14-hour jeep ride – and you can see the Jamie Johnson club in action.’

“Two really powerful forces: stories, which is how our minds get information, and football, which is arguably the most powerful force in society in terms of connecting people.”

Another powerful force used books and football to connect people.

“Kids always ask me who’s the greatest person I’ve met through working in football or writing,” Dan said. “They always expect it to be [Cristiano] Ronaldo, [Lionel] Messi or [David] Beckham.

“I happened to be in the England party that went to Nelson Mandela’s house to meet him in 2006. He wanted to bring his country back together, so he wanted the World Cup to be there because the World Cup shines the brightest light on a country.

“He himself, from this huge amount of reading he did throughout his life, particularly in prison, that’s part of what made him. He used reading and football to bring his country together.

“Working with young players coming through now, developing their reading and writing and communication skills, I don’t see any reason why, in the future, one of them can’t become a world leader. If President Reagan was an actor, and everyone knew him because of that, why can’t Marcus Rashford be Prime Minister in the future?"

Recent leaders in the UK have been plagued by knife crime and gang culture epidemics. Freedman admirably elected to tackle those issues in his latest book, Unstoppable.

“I’ve been to about 2,000 schools in the last 13 years,” he said. “I always talk to the pupils or students I meet about what’s happening in their lives and the pressures they’re facing. A ten-year-old boy at a primary school on the outskirts of London started boasting about having a knife.

“That’s scary, but probably to anyone who follows the news, not massively surprising. As an author, your antenna erupts. I believe with the power of stories, you can have a platform to tackle issues, to be able to get kids to open up and discuss things they otherwise wouldn’t. Organisations are using Unstoppable to help kids talk about knife crime.”

So what’s Dan’s message on World Book Day?

“Whatever it is that you’re interested in, your passion, pick up a book and find out more about it,” he said. “A good book is like having your best friend, or the most entertaining person you’ve ever met, with you whenever you want to speak to them.

“It’s the best thing for you in terms of your well-being, power, potential and opportunity in your life, and at the same time the most enjoyable of things to do. So World Book Day is a good opportunity to celebrate one of the best things in the world, which is picking up a good book, losing yourself in it and enjoying every word.”

And if you’re short of a good book today, Mark Prince OBE has a recommendation. The former boxer’s son Kiyan, who was on the books of Queens Park Rangers, was fatally stabbed in the heart while breaking up a fight outside his school.

“Never mind Shakespeare - this should be on the syllabus for every young person in the country to read,” declared the anti-knife crime campaigner.