Kristoffer Liicht brings panna street soccer to Northampton Soccer Club

  • Kristoffer Liicht, center, in white shirt, of Denmark, demonstrates a technique in a panna court match with Finn Norsen, 12, of Florence during the first day of a three-day soccer skills workshop at Allsport Soccer Arena in Northampton on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kristoffer Liicht of Denmark, co-founder of Copenhagen Panna House, talks to his clinic while Nick Rogers, left, of California and Ally Busone, 12, of Northampton play a match in the background during a three-day soccer skills workshop at Allsport Soccer Arena in Northampton on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Nick Rogers, left, of California helps Kristoffer Liicht of Denmark, co-founder of Copenhagen Panna House, demonstrate a technique during a three-day soccer skills workshop at Allsport Soccer Arena in Northampton on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kristoffer Liicht of Denmark, one of the founders of Copenhagen Panna House, leads a three-day soccer skills workshop at Allsport Soccer Arena in Northampton on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 2/18/2019 10:51:15 PM

NORTHAMPTON — John Senn-McNally stood back-to-back with Kristoffer Liicht, a soccer ball pressed between them.

Spectators and future participants gathered around the octagonal panna court at Allsport Soccer Arena on Monday. Liicht, a Danish street soccer expert, designated someone to start the game as he loosened his shoulders.

The designated starter quickly said, “Now,” and Liicht enthusiastically shouted, “Now!” before turning around. Senn-McNally, of Northampton, took control of the ball, and Liicht asked him, “What’s your name, bro? I’m Kris,” before raising his hand for a high-five. Senn-McNally took the bait, stopping the ball with his foot to give a high-five. Liicht knocked the ball away before Senn-McNally regained control. He dribbled briefly before placing a long shot through a rectangle hole in the court for a goal.

“Great goal,” Liicht said, giving a thumbs up, before taking possession. He hiked up his jeans, took two dribbles before launching into a stepover and poking the ball between Senn-McNally’s legs for a nutmeg, or panna, which won the game.

The crowd cheered, and Senn-McNally shook Liicht’s hand before the next game started. Senn-McNally was the first volunteer to face Liicht on the panna court. He watched Liicht take third at the World Panna Championships on YouTube and wanted to be first in the ring during the demonstration.

“I love the game, I just learned about it a couple weeks ago. I was so excited for this guy to come,” Senn-McNally said. “I wanted to be the first one so other people wouldn’t be scared to get ‘megged.”

Panna is a street soccer game that began in Suriname, South America, and gained popularity in the Netherlands. It lasts 3 minutes on a 6-meter diameter court, and whoever scores the most goals wins. Players can also win by kicking the ball through an opponent’s legs for a nutmeg, or panna. The demonstration Monday was part of the first day of a three-day clinic Liicht is running in Northampton focusing on foot skills, ball control and creativity. Local soccer coach Chris Sorensen found Liicht on YouTube and reached out via his website to see if he would be interested in working with the Northampton Soccer Club.

“As the club and the kids start getting better and better, we’ve been looking for ways for them to keep growing,” Sorensen said. “We want our kids to have great foot skills and be confident on the ball.”

The club charged a fee for the clinic and used that money to bring Liicht from Denmark. His friend and fellow panna competitor Nicholas Rogers flew from Los Angeles to help. They arrived Monday morning and held two sessions: one for 10-12 year olds and another for 13 and over.

Liicht first found street soccer in 2007. He never played formal, organized soccer, but saw someone playing panna in the street and checked it out. His opponent nutmegged him immediately.

“I needed to be able to do this. It’s the coolest thing in the world,” said Liicht, 25. “I went from playing computer games every day to going out with my ball every day. Sometimes you find something that sparks something inside of you and you can’t stop.”

As he got better, he moved to Copenhagen and met other players, eventually starting the Copenhagen Pannahouse. The organization has a YouTube channel and posts on Instagram. Liicht has run clinics in 35 countries.

Pannahouse hosts the World Panna Championships, also called the Pannahouse Invitational, in Denmark in August. That’s where Rogers first met Liicht. Rogers lives and coaches soccer in Los Angeles and got involved in the panna scene after attending a workshop in Los Angeles and building a social media following.

“When you limit the space the kids have to play in, they have to come up with other solutions than just kicking the ball long,” Rogers said. “American soccer players that we work with are scared to take that touch. They get the ball, and they want to get rid of it fast.”

Liicht started Monday with a simple warmup, moving the ball around with the soles of the feet before turning it into games of freeze tag. After that, he and Rogers demonstrated panna on the court, which was built by the Northampton soccer community.

Neither Liicht nor Rogers went full blast against the kids they faced. It was more about introducing them to the game, its principals and possibilities. They’re expressive, encouraging and joke a lot.

“It’s very easy for me to panna them. I have a lot of moves I know work because a lot of these kids are already soccer players that have integrated ways of defending the ball, ways I know how to counter,” Liicht said. “This is a positive environment where they can be themselves.”

He then taught the campers several panna moves that they practiced in pairs. The first involved baiting your opponent to lunge for the ball then pushing it through their legs for a panna. Williamsburg’s Vincent Zononi put his own spin on it, literally, and added a back heel. Rogers saw it and started jumping around because he was so excited.

“That trick, no one’s ever done. Street soccer is a pretty small community. If someone does a really cool trick, it goes on the internet, someone gets to name it and now everyone tries to learn it,” Rogers said. “I’ve never seen anybody do that.”

Without being taught, Zononi learned one of the core principals of street soccer: taking established moves and tweaking them to make them unique and your own.

“That doesn’t happen very often,” Liicht said. “It’s about the freedom to do what you want with the ball. You can express yourself with the ball. That freedom is the beauty of the sport.”

Once they practiced those skills, Liicht set up a short panna tournament with one-minute matches. Winners moved up a court and losers dropped down. After the game was over, he sat down with the participants close. His voice was hoarse after six hours.

He asked, “Do you feel like you got better?”

They answered clearly: “Yes.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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