How the guy who nutmegged Neymar bounced back from two comas

7 mins
02 Dec 2022
How the guy who nutmegged Neymar bounced back from two comas

Jack Downer aka @streetpanna tells us how to bounce back from some serious downtime

words Rhys Thomas

A guy’s how-to is a column where we hear from men who’ve lived it about how to tackle the tough things in life in the gentlest of ways. Jack Downer, who wows with his world-class football tricks and dribbles, is the first in this series.

Panna is a form of street football that is said to have originated in 2007 in Suriname, a South American country bordering northern Brazil. The aim of the game is to score as many goals against an opponent as you can within the three minutes each game is played for. But, if you’re able to pass the ball through your opponent’s legs (which you might know as a nutmeg, megs, peg, tunnel, or panna) then you automatically win. Right there and then. Even if it’s a second into the game. Technically, panna means knockout. As a result, in this world, nutmegs are king.

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And the king of the nutmegs? Probably Jack Downer, 24, from England. You might know him as @streetpanna. He’s a two-time Superball World Panna Champion. When Jack started, about ten years ago, he reckons “maybe five people'' in the UK knew what panna was. Now, he alone has over 3.1m followers across his social media. He could probably nutmeg all of them. He’s even nutmegged Neymar Jr. Yeah, the one playing for PSG and leading the line for Brazil in the UEFA World Cup this year. Impressive, right?

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Well there’s something more impressive about Jack. His determination. See, on on 6th June 2021, he collided with a goalkeeper during a charity match. The keeper’s knee hit his abdomen with such force that his liver “essentially exploded”, Jack says. It was lacerated, badly. He was placed into a coma and his family was told he was dying. And he was dying. The mortality rate for this type of injury is at least 80%, but his particular condition was very severe.

This wasn’t the first time Jack had had to recover and come back from injury. Injury had in fact killed him once before, at least professionally. At 14, he had ligament damage in his foot from being stamped on, and his knee also suffered. He was out of action for eight months and it stopped his chances at making it as a professional footballer, putting the brakes on interest in him from teams like Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham.

Still, while Jack Downer should probably be dead, this isn’t a sad story. Because he’s not sad about it. It took three months, two comas, nine pints of blood, and losing 12% of his bodyweight, but Jack is here with a big smile on his face, wondering about things like “setting up a camera to see what his dog gets up to when he leaves the house” and making jokes about us having a candle-lit interview.

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He has high hopes for the future, dreams of becoming a boxer while retaining his world champion status in the panna world. We caught up with Jack at the Tate Modern, where Impulstar, an organisation focused on bringing football to underrepresented youth communities to provide them with a platform to showcase talent in front of professional players, coaches, music, artists and their community, were hosting their first ever UK edition of the event, supported by Instagram. It's part of Meta's commitment to shining a light on emerging talent and driving culture forward, online and irl, across dance, music, and the beautiful game.

Here’s what Jack had to teach us about his life so far.

How to overcome obstacles

“When I was 14 my mum tricked me into playing panna. I thought we were going for a walk, but she dropped me off at the town hall and I spent an hour being nutmegged by a kid a few years younger than me (I was 14, so a few years was a big difference). After the injuries put a stop to my career, I withdrew a little bit. I felt a bit lost now that becoming a professional 11-a-side footballer was over for me. But because I had a passion for training and growing and learning, applying that to street football quickly felt natural. What I'm saying is I ended up seeing my obstacle more as an opportunity to learn something new, to learn about something I was interested in, and develop my skills further. And I think we can take most obstacles to be a chance to learn and develop. We don't really get to grow without learning and facing new challenges.”

How to back yourself

“Street Football is all about identity. So in 11-a-side, I'd have been categorised as a defender, or a right back. But in street football it's just you. You wear what you want, you play how you want. So when most of the lads, my mates, were going through the 'who am I?' phase, and perhaps defining it on partying, or girls, or grades, I’ve had a good sense of who I am since I was about 14, maybe 15. As I’d expressed myself through sport. It gave me a lot of self-belief.”

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How to rebound

“It's all about preparation. I always felt I was prepared for anything. At 14 I was working hard to try and make it. And okay, I didn't make it, but when I got an opportunity to go to London for uni, I did solely to try and find opportunities in street football. I’d spent the previous three years training, so I was ready, and I shocked everyone. I couldn't prepare for having my liver, you know, explode. But I did train every day for nine years. I never drank, I always kept a healthy diet. And I think that's why I was able to come through that event.” “I’m super glad I went through it. Honestly, I’d do it all again, what I’ve learned and my perspective since then is just incredible.”

How to focus away from drink and drugs

“I say I didn’t drink, I did in freshers week once, but I quickly knew it wasn't for me. I find it very easy to avoid alcohol or drugs because my happiness very much relates to if I deem my day to have been successful or not, with whatever it is I was doing. If anything was going to distract me, or get in the way, it would likely make me unhappy. I find being alert and being in control and present to be better than those things, so it's a simple choice for me.”

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How to build your own path

“I was at uni, studying philosophy and getting good grades and was going to go into marketing. I had a bit of a dream internship offer, but I decided to drop out. My attendance was like 20% as well, so I clearly didn't want to be there. Plus, at that time I realised I could monetise my hobby enough to make it into a job, and that was a far nicer idea than marketing. I think one of the best tips in life is to find something you're truly passionate about and to try it. You might not even like whatever it is that much at the start, but follow things you're curious about. Eventually you'll get drawn into something. And when you have things you're interested in, it's then easy to have something to look forward to, or a goal. Eventually that can just become your job.

People do it. I'm doing it, and I wasn't even good at street football for the first few years. So you don't have to be perfect when you start, you just have to be willing to work hard and take some risks. I mean, I was very lucky that my family was always there. So I knew that if it went really wrong, I could just go stay back in my room at my mum's and try and make it work again. But because I knew what I was trying to do, that didn’t feel too bad as a worst-case scenario. If you're willing to reset, minimise ego, and keep the passion, it will pay off. It took me about three and a half years of doing it full time to get there, which is sort of like doing a uni degree, but in what I love doing.”

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