From precision juggling to practically balletic flick ups, 21 year-old Lirian Santos’ football freestyle is something to behold. We sit down with the Brazilian native to discuss the beautiful game
By Emma Taylor
‘Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels,’ is the (commonly misattributed) caption on one of cartoonist’s Bob Thaves’ newspaper illustrations referring to old Hollywood performing duo, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Hearing the perspective of the punishing musical numbers talked about from Roger’s point of view, with the added layer of challenges unique to her, sets off an “Oh yeah!” realisation moment for the reader. That recognition of a woman’s equivalent of doing the same ‘thing’ a man is doing feels closely linked to the more recent quote by Canadian writer and politician, Charlotte Whitton, “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good.” Which sounds rather depressing, until her next sentence, “Luckily, this is not difficult.”
Enter Brazilian Lirian Santos, a 21 year-old full-time football content creator, World Cup 2022 presenter, and sports model based in London with a talented flair for freestyle football – even in her high heels. From precision juggling to practically balletic flick ups, Lirian’s passion for tricks is rooted in wanting to bring a bit more fun to the beautiful game.
“I realised football here (the UK) is quite strict. The creative side of football, you can’t really show it much and if you do, it’s frowned upon. It’s more about you’ve got to score goals and that’s it. I always liked the skills side of football. So for me, I saw this thing that I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to go about it because whenever I would do a certain skill, people would say, ‘Stop doing all of that and just score!’ said Lirian.
Moving from Bahia to the UK at age three with her parents, Lirian describes how football was naturally part of family life. “Brazil has such a football-centric culture, everyone loves football in Brazil. From a young age I’ve always played with my mum and dad in the park. I don’t remember exactly the moment that I thought, ‘Wow, I love the sport’, I think it’s always been there. I’ve always had that love for football, playing in a team and then the freestyle aspect came later on,” she laughed.
The turning point for Lirian to explore her interest in football skills came when the world locked down in 2020 and there was nothing but time for people to escape into attempting new things while unprecedented times raged on around us. Lirian recalled: “I saw people doing all these cool tricks with footballs in videos and I was like, I think I can try that. Obviously football stopped, I wasn’t playing for a team during lockdown, so I had the perfect time to learn these new skills.
Creating Football Artistry And Entertainment
I watched videos thinking I could do it easily, but then when you get into it, it’s not that easy at all! There were things that I would watch and I had to try a thousand times only to land one skill. At first I was really optimistic thinking I was going to land everything quickly. Then there was the harsh reality of knowing that I actually need to practise, I need to train,” she explained. The practice paid off and Lirian started posting her own freestyle football videos on social media. As of writing, she’s amassed 218K followers on Instagram and 364K followers with 5.4M ‘Likes’ on TikTok. Each post radiates with her sunshine personality (plus plenty of literal sunshine as Lirian is often shooting in enviously warm locations compared to the UK), artistry and entertainment. Lirian said: “I really like going back to Brazil. It’s so football-centric and everyone there just loves football, so making content is much easier. I also like going to other exotic countries. I went to Albania recently and was very impressed. It is such a gorgeous country and everyone seemed to like football. Anywhere that people admire and appreciate football, I’m there!”
Each piece of football social content she publishes is predominantly met with positivity and awe, but of course there’s the odd (from the handful of hate I’ve seen, a pattern of male usernames coupled with anonymous pictures) comment trying to bring her down a peg or two. Questioning her on how she deals with people leaving nasty words under her hard work, Lirian gave a room-brightening smile whilst shrugging and said: “With these things, the more you answer, you are fuelling them. At first I thought, ‘Oh, why are they saying that? Oh no wait, this has affected me a little,’ but then you have to learn to ignore it. Once I tried to answer back and then it became an ongoing conversation, before another person joined in and added something else, it’s just not worth it. The best thing is to ignore it as these people don’t even know you. I just carry on with life.”
Freestyle Music and Sport
It’s not just football which her Brazilian heritage has had an influence on, Lirian is heavily into music during her downtime as well. “I’ve always loved football and music on the same level, football perhaps a tiny bit higher. I play the guitar, drums and the piano as well. I like having a little jam and my dad’s a musician,” she beamed. However, football has always taken priority and although she admits she didn’t think it would be possible to make a career out of the game growing up, now she has everything to play for in terms of her future. She explained: “I always had this idea that it would be really cool to be a footballer, but I didn’t think this was an option when I was younger. I remember playing for fun and it being super enjoyable, but with a lack of representation and role models at the time, it was hard to think, ‘Oh, that’s what I wanna do.’
Now, I definitely would consider it, as I’m training more in an 11s team. When I was younger it was hard to see myself doing that, especially coming from immigrant parents. Obviously you’ve got to do what you love, but you also have to do something that’s going to give you some financial return when you see your parents doing so much, sacrificing so much and doing jobs that aren’t considered ‘good’ in the UK to make sure you’ve got an alright future. I don’t know which team I’d pick though – Brazil or England,” she grinned.
Becoming A Role Model
In terms of supporting teams, in Brazil Lirian firmly backs Flamengo based in Rio de Janeiro, but as for clubs closer to home in London, she’s keeping her options open but is leaning to cheer more for Arsenal. Santos exclaimed: “I’m not glory-hunting! It’s just because I live close.”
However, she’s not rigid in her football viewing schedule. Lirian plays more than she watches, although she has started to watch more men’s and women’s football recently.
On the topic of women’s professional football being increasingly televised, we touched on the classic argument that women’s games aren’t as interesting to watch according to some. She sighed: “I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t watch women’s football, I don’t like it, it’s slow, it’s not as good’. I find it ironic as the same people saying this will happily watch a Sunday league game, which is fine, but the quality of football isn’t as great, but they’re still there enjoying it. If you love the game, you love the game period. When I watch women’s football, I think it’s incredible. I don’t see this ‘thing’ that everyone says, ‘It’s a difference in skill level and whatnot,’ I feel that people say this because they hear other people say it, but when they actually stop and watch, they realise the quality is great.”
It’s apparent that Lirian’s mission to kick joy and frivolity back into football is fast turning her into the role model she probably would’ve looked up to as a child. With cultural moments (Bend It Like Beckham’ effect in 2002) and sporting wins (England Lionesses Euro 2022 champions) chipping away at the male-dominated status quo, the global participation in all areas of football by women and girls is only expanding and will take figures like Lirian who encourage play and imagination in the face of seriousness to the forefront. Like all good role models, Lirian’s advice to young girls interested in football is simple. “If I stopped playing football because someone told me it’s not a girls’ sport then I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. It’s a cliche, but don’t give up. Take the leap and don’t listen to people telling you otherwise.”