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Simon Di Principe

The hopes and dreams of East London’s football pitches

Simon Di Principe’s new book ‘Grass Roots’ goes to Hackney Marshes and photographs a world far far away from the multi-million pound industry that is Premier League football

Bitterness, rejection, guilt, dashed dreams. My relationship with football is not necessarily unique: hours upon hours of bus journeys to public parks dotted around central Scotland, to stand impatiently at the side, the white paint of the touchline became an all too familiar accent to my polished black and red adidas Predators. And the guilt that would come with it, knowing that your dad had travelled that distance to watch you make a brief, tokenistic cameo in the dying moments of a match that, being charitable, could be labeled as somewhat agricultural.

By 16 your head has been turned by girls, cheap cider, and all the other tropes of being a lad growing up in Britain – which momentarily tempers the realisation that you're not quite good enough, or headstrong enough, to carve out a career as a professional footballer.

Despite the disappointment and rejection – the unrealised dreams of running out in front of raucous crowd of football supporters that, no matter their age, would give anything to be in your shoes – football still has a hold over me that I suspect I will never be able to shrug. It has, equally, brought me some of the best moments of my life; unparalleled moments of ecstasy that outstrip all of the lows combined in a single flash – like an 18-year-old Tony Watt sliding the ball past the goalkeeper of one of the finest ever Barcelona sides into the goal at Celtic Park where my granddad’s ashes are scattered.

It is that same devotion that borders on the irrational – a genuine unrequited love for the game, that Simon Di Principe has sought to capture in his latest book Grass Roots. Having previously shot for the likes Purple, Riposte Magazine and Dazed, the London-based photographer set out to document those like me who, despite never actually making it, still harbour a genuine passion for football.

“Football still has a hold over me that I suspect I will never be able to shrug. It has, equally, brought me some of the best moments of my life; unparalleled moments of ecstasy that outstrip all of the lows”

Every Sunday morning for a full football season (nursing an ankle injury that prevented himself from playing), Di Principe photographed the players of Hackney Marshes – England’s spiritual home of Sunday league football. The East London pitches are the largest expanse of public pitches in Europe, those hallowed turfs once graced by a young David Beckham and Bobby Moore.

Di Principe paints a picture of diversity, unity and an unpolished charm that serves as a notable counterpoint to the £300,000 a week footballers, with their shit haircuts, their shit tattoos, their flash cars and the day job we all grew up wanting. “Grass Roots is a healthy reminder about what a welcoming city London is, the breadth of community spirit that can be fostered through organised sports leagues and how amateur football is a gateway to settling into a happy life in Britain,” writes Stuart Wright in the book’s foreword.

The players of Hackney Marshes, and those who turn up each weekend up and down the country in search of their own little moments of glory, are described by Wright and Di Principe as "the lifeblood of the game", and as you thumb through the book’s pages, any notion that it’s “only a game” quickly fades.

Here, Di Principe discusses the process of making the book, flash footballers and how diversity of Hackney Marshes represents the very best of London.

Could you tell me what the initial idea was and what the process was like when shooting the book?

Simon Di Principe: I used to play football on a regular basis, but I’m a freelance portrait photographer. I always remembered my dad used to play football on Hackney Marshes. He played until he literally couldn’t anymore because of knee injuries. My mum used to tell me all these stories, about how violent he was, him getting into fights or whatever.

So I went up there to have a look and I was blown away with the size and the vastness of it and then. I did about 9-10 months in total, every Sunday. I was more interested to document the actual faces as a portrait story, because you do get photographers but they want to get action shots. I was more interested in the vastness array of different nationalities and cultures up there, the stuff that sums up London, coming together on a Sunday morning.

So there’s a bit of family history tied into this project for you?

Simone Di Principe: Yeah, one of the referees who’s the secretary of the league, he gave me this little booklet and it tells you the history of all the teams that have won the league through the years. I noticed there was a team that had won it 7 or 8 years in a row. Turns out my dad was actually in that team.

He is a first generation Italian immigrant himself. The whole thing for me really is the kind of back story about immigration and young men coming to London and having somewhere to get a release from any pressures in - whatever pressures they’ve got in their life you know, whatever that might be.

The images provide a sharp juxtaposition to what most people think of when you mention football, which is multi-million pound football players, this feels a lot more real somehow. How important was it to you, to capture that realness?

Simon Di Principe: That was a massive point. It’s getting worse – the Premiership has just signed a 100 million pound player; players are earning 300 grand a week. And you’ve got these people, the grass roots of football at places like Hackney Marshes. People love football. I guess I was just trying to capture why a lot of people do love football, removed from the multi-million pound footballers.

Do you remember a specific moment when you first became hooked on the game?

Simon Di Principe: Probably through my dad – he used to be football mad! I really remember 1982, when Italy won the World Cup. I would have been 8 years old and I remember them beating, I think it was Germany and Brazil. Those two games were insane, I remember thinking my dad would go through the ceiling when he jumped out of his chair.

Growing up, all I wanted to do was be a football player. I had a few offers from clubs when I was about 16, but to be honest with you, there wasn’t really any money really in playing lower league, semi-professional football

Diversity seems like a key theme of Grass Roots and how football can bring together people from all walks of life.

Simon Di Principe: Definitely. London can be quite a lonely city. My dad came to London when he was about 18 – then he met some other Italians and they introduced him to Sunday League Football and the rest is history really! Clerkenwell Road, where the church is, the club is on the left hand side above it and they all still go there. Some of them are like 90 years old you know and they still all go and talk about football. I think that’s pretty amazing really, that football is this common bond between some of these people.

In the book there’s index at the back where I’ve got the faces of all the players, their names and where they’ve come from. You’ve got Germans, Nigerians, Ukrainians. There are so many different cultures up there and I think it’s an amazing thing. For me, that what makes London a great city – different people, different cultures and different foods. I think Hackney Marshes is a reflection of that. In a nutshell, that what it’s really about.

You can buy Grass Roots from Palm Publishing here.