CARY — Indi Cowie is the best freestyle soccer player in the world and she has the paperwork to prove it.
Cowie was recently named as the FIFA Street World Street Champion for soccer freestyle by World Player of the Year Lionel Messi of Barcelona. She also entered the Guinness Book of World Records by doing 102 heel taps with a soccer ball in a minute.
That was all duringspring break.
“Other people went to the beach,” said her mother, Judith Cowie, who moved with husband Logan to North Carolina from Stevenston, Ayrshire, Scotland, 20 years ago.
But soon after spring break, the University of North Carolina freshman was playing in an exhibition match against Virginia when she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. The injury, and the resulting surgery, means she has curtailed her 90-minute a day freestyle practice and she probably won’t play for the Tar Heels this fall.
“I’m being positive about it,” Cowie said. “By having to watch, I’m seeing the game a little bit differently.”
Right now she can’t do any heel taps or her famed around-the-world, where she kicks the ball in the air and sweeps her leg around the ball or even lie on her back and endlessly bicycle the ball. She can balance the ball on her forehead, though, or on the back of her neck. But nothing that would strain her repaired knee.
Cowie was born in North Carolina, but has played on the Scottish U17 national girls team and spent a semester with relatives in Scotland. Despite missing a semester of high school, she graduated from Cary Green Hope High a semester early in December 2011 and enrolled at UNC in January. She almost immediately began training with the Tar Heels, Cowie’s favorite team since she got Mia Hamm’s autograph at a Toys-R-Us store when she was 5 years old.
Cowie, who never played high school soccer, found a group of teammates at Chapel Hill who embraced the freestyle soccer skills that have made her an international star, if not a local household name.
“I feel incredibly at home,” she said.
Cowie does things with a soccer ball – juggling with your feet is an imprecise and incomplete comparison – that have put her in demand for appearances around the world. She was an invited guest at Champion League finals in Spain and Italy and performed before 76,000 fans at a Chelsea-Manchester United game in London.
She was at the Champion League final in Spain when her advertisement video for the Champion League was shown on the stadium’s big screen. The ad was aired in 58 countries but not in the United States.
For the video, shot in Prague, the producers asked her to don a dress and go one-on-one with a defender from the Czech national team. Nothing was staged or rehearsed and she dazzled, kicking the ball through his legs.
“I thought I recognized the music and then I saw the girl in the dress,” Indi Cowie said of watching herself on the stadium screen. “The stadium went wild. It must have been embarrassing for him. People still talk about the girl in the dress.”
During this year’s spring break, Cowie made and edited another freestyle soccer video that was submitted to EA Sports as part of its promotion of a new video game, FIFA Street. Soccer players from all over the world submitted their videos. Some used special effects, but Cowie went pure freestyle and did her six or seven tricks in one take, unlike some entries who assembled highlight videos.
The more than 80 entries were eventually whittled down by public vote to the four that Messi viewed.
“He watched my video,” gushed Cowie, who says the Argentine is her idol.
He named her as the world street champion.
“It’s the best thing that has happened in my freestyle career because I went head-to-head with the best freestylers on the planet and had Messi watched my video and selected me, which was unbelievable,” she said.
The world record
The same week she did her video for the contest, Cowie tackled another lifetime goal. She had loved reading the Guinness Book of World Records since she was a small child and wanted to add her name to a soccer record.
With three video cameras running and a protocol sheet from Guinness in her mom’s hand, Cowie started tapping the ball with her heels, notching the record 102 in a minute.
She has shown some fancy footwork with NCAA regulations, too. The NCAA has ruled that freestyling with a soccer ball is not the same thing as playing soccer. Just like former N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson, who was a professional baseball player but could play NCAA football, Cowie can be a pro in freestyling and still be an amateur in soccer.
“They are two different things,” said Judith Cowie.
Cowie can be paid for clinics and appearances as a freestyler and retain her amateur status in women’s soccer, although each of her freestyle functions must be approved through the UNC compliance office. The NCAA hasn’t ruled on whether she can market herself as a freestyler.
Cowie would like to start a fashion line that might include things like the black and pink “Individual freestyle” T-shirt she sometimes wears. “It is good to promote the sport,” she said.
Soon after spring break, Cowie was playing an exhibition and looked down as she twisted. She saw her left knee jolt out at an awkward angle. “Surprising, it didn’t hurt much,” she said.
For the first time in years, she can’t do her 90-minutes a day routine of freestyle exercises. She no longer gets up at 4:30 a.m., to go to the parking deck to practice bouncing the ball with various parts of her body.
She misses it and hopes to return to freestyling within the next few days, but UNC women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance plans for her to redshirt this fall.
“If I can practice, it will be OK,” she said. “I love my teammates and I want to be with them.”
The injury helped her bond with her teammates. Since her dorm room was on the fourth floor of a building with no elevators, some of the girls invited her to stay with them to avoid the stairs and others helped her get to classes.
Even with the help, she blistered both her palms while using her crutches.
Fortunately, when you are a freestyle soccer player, you don’t need hands to juggle.