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Published: April 4 2003 16:53 | Last Updated: April 4 2003 16:53 Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a 21-year-old Swedish genius of Bosnian-Croatian descent. Playing for Ajax Amsterdam against Arsenal recently, he scooped up the ball on his foot, dangled it in the air, flicked it backwards over the Arsenal player Patrick Vieira, and then rounded Vieira to retrieve it. Vieira, who unlike Zlatan is widely considered a genius, never gets shown up like that. Nor was it a one-off. The Ajax team, average age about 22, with hardly a "name" among them, have reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League where every other surviving team consists of famous multi-millionaires. Ajax will probably fail against AC Milan on Tuesday, but Zlatan and others have already made their point: the European ghetto playground is starting to match the American ghetto playground as a conservatorium for athletes. This challenges the orthodox view of how great sportsmen are produced.Many of the Ajax players grew up on a certain type of playground. It is typically in an immigrant neighbourhood (Rosengard in Malmo for Zlatan, Geuzenveld in Amsterdam for his Dutch-Surinamese colleague Nigel de Jong), surrounded by postwar high-rises, with an asphalt surface, boom-boxes on the touchline playing rap music, and a cage to stop the ball flying into the street. Teams are small: often a game is two against two, or even one against one. Playground football is less about scoring than producing great feints."The art is to beat someone so that you're standing in front of an empty goal, then wait for the opponent, then fake him again, so he runs into a post," explains Nordin Boukhari, an Ajax player of Moroccan origin raised on the playgrounds of Rotterdam. "But you don't score, you leave the ball lying there and you laugh." Boukhari and his brother appear regularly on the Dutch TV programme Studio Spaan, where they emerge from a white limousine on to a concrete playground to the sounds of rap music before humiliating opponents.Great playground players invent their own feints, but there are a few standards. Zinedine Zidane, the French genius from a Marseilles ghetto, is the master of the "tiptop" - a move that entails rolling the ball beneath the sole of one foot, pirouetting, and then rolling it away beneath the other foot. Another favourite move is known in the Netherlands as the "panna", a Surinamese word that describes passing the ball through an opponents' legs. This is considered the ultimate humiliation.Being good at playground football is not the same as being good at football. Boukhari's brother is better than him on asphalt, and when Dutch internationals such as Edgar Davids or Mario Melchiot show up at Amsterdam playgrounds in their summer holidays, they are sometimes humiliated by unemployed teenagers who don't even play at amateur level.However, these kids are generally useless at what they call "field football", because they never run (playground football is often played at walking pace) and only pass with their heels. Davids once showed up at his club, Juventus, with a Dutch-Arab playground genius in tow, but the kid took against field football and left almost immediately.The parallels with playground basketball, usually called "streetball", are striking. Streetball is typically played in a black American neighbourhood amid high-rises, on an asphalt surface, with courtside boom-boxes playing rap music and a cage to stop the ball going astray.Some games are two against two, or one against one, and the point is less to score than to produce great moves. Great streetball players invent feints, which they give names such as "the freak nasty" or "chicken fajita wrap". A player might dribble with his knees, or bounce the ball through his opponents' legs, says Alexander Wolff in his book Big Game, Small World. The Harlem Globetrotters emerged out of streetball.Many professional basketball players, such as Allen Iverson or Kobe Bryant, grew up with it, and sometimes still show up on ghetto playgrounds, though usually at the prompting of a shoe sponsor wanting to film a commercial there. Streetball is cool, and companies such as Nike and MTV crawl all over it (Nike is now also crawling all over European playground football). There are streetball computer games, and some drug dealers have streetball teams that play one another for purses as large as $100,000. A great streetballer can get rich.For kids wanting to be Zidane or Iverson, the playground is not enough. You also have to play the standard game, get fit, and pass. However, it was the thousands of hours on playgrounds that gave Zidane and Iverson their perfect techniques. If you practise on unreliable surfaces in a cramped space, when you move to a perfect pitch or court everything is easy. White middle-class suburban kids who play on perfect surfaces and spend their free time in their large homes, can seldom compete. If genius is simply the propensity to practise ceaselessly, the playground kids have it.This is why so many good basketball players are black, and good footballers are immigrants: not because they see sport as the way out of poverty, or because it's in their blood, but because of playgrounds. It all invalidates the fashionable obsession with "academies". Rather than spend millions on manicured pitches, the big English clubs should be laying bumpy asphalt.