Instagram sensation Aguska Mnich is lighting up the world of football freestyle. “I don’t know what’s happening but times are changing”
By Ralph Jones
Aguska Mnich does things with a football that should not be possible. Standing on her hands, she positions her legs like an open pair of scissors, balancing the ball on the perfectly horizontal sole of her right foot. Striking down with her leg, she volleys the ball into the ground, where it rises high, hits the underside of the crossbar, and goes into the goal. In another video she walks outside wearing an open backpack, doing kickups as she goes – with a round-the-world for good measure. She traps the ball and passes it into a set of steps, where it is sent flying high into the air. Walking forward to meet it, she ducks her head at the last minute and the ball disappears into her backpack, as though there was nowhere else it could ever have landed.
At 25, Aguska is one of the best female freestylers on the planet. She has won the Red Bull Street Style World Championship twice in the last three years, and was the first woman to win the European Freestyle Football Championship. Women’s freestyling in particular has seen a surge in recent years, with players like Aguska using Instagram to showcase their skills and pick up commercial partnerships with huge sports brands, turning a practice that was once a novelty into a viable career option.
“So let’s start from the beginning,” Aguska said. Growing up in a tiny town in Poland, Aguska had four brothers. Football was always there. “We always kicked the ball around,” she told me. But her first love wasn’t football, it was volleyball. When she was about 18, a new sports club opened and, after playing volleyball for a while, she decided to swap to football with the other girls. “The level was not good at all,” she said, and traditional football really never appealed to her. While playing football at the club, Aguska saw two guys freestyling nearby and asked them what they were doing. The next day she started trying it herself, doing whatever she could with the ball. “This is how my journey starts,” she said. For the first couple of years, she would train every day: after school she would come home, eat quickly, and go out for training, finishing at about 9pm. Aguska trained alone. She tended to find that this accelerated her improvement, as her focus was more intense. “There was no day off. It was my addiction,” she said.
In the early days it wasn’t easy. Aguska started freestyling because she loved it, not because she wanted to make money. But she wasn’t confident; she didn’t believe in herself. One of the people to whom she looked to inspiration was a Hungarian freestyler called Kitti Szasz, four-time world champion. “I was just inspired by her personality, by her freestyle and the way that she was treating others,” she said. “I knew everything about her.”
She tried a sports massage course at university but left after six months because she knew it wasn’t what she was meant to be doing. She always wanted to travel, and had an urge to live alone. So, in 2016, she moved to the UK by herself to try to make it as a freestyler. At first she worked in Starbucks but her boss made it almost impossible for her to compete in freestyle events and film her first advert in Ukraine. She quit the job and plunged into the unknown.
“It was super difficult at the beginning, of course, because I couldn’t speak English,” she said. “I didn’t know if I was going to have work or not.” But she told herself she would try. More and more people approached her with opportunities. And, although she worked comparatively little in 2016 and 2017, she got by. She was improving all the time. “Of course, when you get better, you get paid more,” she said. Handstands became fashionable in freestyling around 2016 and, having done acrobatics when she was younger, Aguska had a head start. For six months she did handstands every day. She learned how to balance the ball on her neck and move into a handstand from there.
Freestyle football is a relatively new sport. But as the sport has gone global, so has Aguska’s audience. When she started her Instagram account she didn’t mind if she became well known or not. “I just wanted to show off my skills.” Now, with 143k people following her, this is where she gets a lot of work. It is an advert for her routines. Her tricks – which she posts at an impressive rate of around one a day – can go viral, putting her in front of more and more potential clients. She estimates that out of the very top freestylers, perhaps 80% make a living from the sport. “We are living in the best time right now,” she said.
One of the brands to have recruited Aguska is Red Bull, whose inaugural Street Style championship was held in 2008. For the opening of this year’s tournament she collaborated with a street artist called Captain Kris to create a football-themed piece of street art. During our conversation she said, “Freestyling is not just a sport, it is an art.” She also likens it to dance, and many freestylers use break dancing as inspiration. The moves in both disciplines act as a way of expressing one’s personality. When I asked Aguska how she would describe her personality, she said that she loves to support everyone, “even the ones who don’t treat me well.” I asked her if she was shy when she was younger and she told me she had recently found a note from her school days, lamenting this period of her life. She remembers herself differently; as a positive child who was always running around. And now, she said, she is open and friendly, and makes sure that newcomers to the sport feel welcome.
This feeling of inclusion is integral to the sport at the moment, she said. The women freestylers meet up regularly and push each other to be better. In particular, Aguska stays in touch with Kitti Szasz, Paloma Pujol from Spain, and Laura Biondo from Venezuela. “I would say that it’s beautiful,” she said of the community. “Everyone’s supporting everyone.” Aguska herself has spoken of wanting to teach freestyle in schools to younger girls in the years to come. In the beginning the sport is difficult, she said, but it’s not as hard as people think – it can be taught. “You just need to have one football, shoes, yourself, water, and you can train and train, every single day. And no one is telling you what to practice; you just do whatever you feel like.”
And, as the Olympics diversifies its programme, freestylers are optimistic about their time coming. As Aguska said: the sport isn’t just football, it incorporates disciplines like dance and acrobatics. With sports like skateboarding and BMX freestyle now classified as Olympic sports, freestyle’s inclusion is only a matter of time. There is no doubt that a younger generation of freestylers are looking at women like Aguska and aspiring to be like her. Every day she stumbles upon a new girl who freestyles. “I’m always shocked,” she said, “but I’m so happy about it. There’s a new wave of female freestylers. I don’t know what’s happening but times are changing.”