Bellevue’s Cory Black — who recently captured a nationwide competition with his soccer-ball tricks — is overseas competing in the World Open Championships.
After years playing soccer, Cory Black realized he enjoyed doing tricks with the ball more than the game itself.
Fortunately for Black, 19, a Bellevue resident and former Newport High School soccer player, he wasn’t alone. A few years back, he discovered the fledgling sport of freestyle football, where competitors perform individualized, trick-laden routines with a soccer ball that never touches their hands or the ground.
Videos of freestyling tricksters helped grow the sport’s international popularity the past 15 years and Black — who recently captured a nationwide video skills competition — is now overseas preparing to compete Tuesday at the fifth Super Ball World Open Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic.
“No matter how many tricks you learn to do with a ball, you can’t really use all of it in games,’’ Black said of transitioning to this offshoot of the sport, which he stumbled onto while seeking out new soccer-ball tricks on YouTube. “So, it made sense, given that this was what I was really good at.’’
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The lanky 6-foot-7 University of Washington computer-science major hardly looks the part of a nimble, coordinated soccer magician. But give him a minute or two with the ball and his artistry emerges.
Like other freestyle competitions, this one involves performing routines that promote self-expression.
In Battles, which Black likens to “a breakdance competition,” two competitors take turns performing 30-second routines to randomly chosen music. They are judged on the difficulty of their moves and how well the routines suit the music.
In Freestyle, competitors choreograph much longer routines in advance to preselected music of their choosing.
The sport’s motto is “All you need is a ball’’ meaning Black can practice any place with a hard, flat surface. A favored spot is Gas Works Park in Fremont, where this week he demonstrated lower-body Around the World and Crossover tricks.
They include a Lemmens Around the World move, where Black flips the ball in the air with his foot. That same foot circles the ball twice in midair before being quickly lowered to “catch” it in toe-dribbling fashion before it hits the ground.
A Touzani move — created in 2005 by Dutch modern freestyle pioneer Soufiane Touzani — is similar but involves Black’s foot circling the ball just once in midair. Without pausing, Black uses the same foot to re-kick the ball back up in the air and then does a Crossover move — catching the ball with his other foot.
Freestyle football existed in many forms the past century, but took off as a more structured sport early last decade. Brazilian soccer star Ronaldinho helped jump-start its popularity by doing freestyle tricks in a worldwide Nike commercial campaign.
By 2007, the British documentary “In the Hands Of God’’ hit the big screen, featuring five British freestyle footballers raising money with their skills in order to travel to Argentina to meet soccer legend Diego Maradona.
The London-based Freestyle Football Federation, which serves as the sport’s international body, says it represents 4,000 registered athletes in 93 countries worldwide. It estimates that up to 400 million people are practicing unstructured forms of the sport on playing fields and beaches.
Organized competition began in 2006, with Puma and Red Bull emerging as major sponsors. The world federation — commonly referred to as “F3” — now holds annual national, continental and global events, including the Super Ball competition Black will attend Tuesday.
No nation dominates, though the sport is particularly popular in Poland, Russia and South American countries. There are several dozen Americans good enough for top-level competitions here and abroad.
Competitions are usually live, but Black this year also won an open national contest in which competitors submitted videos of their best freestyle routines. Black emerged victorious after several videos produced over multiple rounds of competition, defeating friend and former Seattle resident Khoa Nguyen, 25, in the final.
Nguyen, who moved to Seattle in 2007 from his native Vietnam and now lives in Pennsylvania, had been practicing here with two other freestylers when they spotted a video Black had made of himself.
“We couldn’t believe the level he was at already,’’ Nguyen said. “So we invited him to come and train with us.’’
Black later began entering competitions. Nguyen says Black’s excellence at lower-body moves already makes him one of the country’s best. And Nguyen would know, since he captured the U.S. national championship last month in Chicago — an event Black skipped because he was saving for this week’s Super Ball in the Czech Republic.
“There are so many different competitions that you can’t really say definitively who is No. 1,” Nguyen said. “But he is already one of the best.’’
The world’s very top freestylers have launched a fledgling pro tour, but mostly make money showing off skills in promotional videos and at corporate events. Black has performed for McDonald’s-sponsored outdoor street fairs and at a Bellevue city employees’ meeting. He hopes that international exposure at the televised Super Ball, featuring 221 athletes from 47 countries competing at a 4,000-seat arena, will lead to bigger things.
For now, Black is largely a solo act — staying in touch with other freestyle footballers via a Facebook group and usually training alone. He says he welcomes the solitude and what the sport brings out in him.
“It’s a way to express yourself by doing creative stuff,’’ he said. “But having it also be a competitive sport, going out and learning new tricks, it’s probably the most fun part of my day.’’