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You'll never play for England!: Meet the weekend warriors who represent the true spirit of football

The football is muddy, inelegant and occasionally bleak, but for the parishioners who flock there on Saturday and Sunday mornings, Hackney Marshes offers a game more beautiful than anything played out on high-definition television. In an age when a player can cost £80m and earn £200,000 a week, and when broadcasters pay billions for television rights, public pitches all over the country have become the spiritual home for a sport that has done its best to outgrow its roots.

Nowhere will football's growing rich/poor divide be more visible than at next month's World Cup. Teams will compete not just for glory and gold, but also for a purse worth a total of £280m. Sponsors, meanwhile, have showered South Africa with cash for the chance to capture the eyes and pockets of the biggest global TV audience in sport.

Like all football fans, Simon Reid will be glued to his television when the World Cup kicks off in Johannesburg ' on Friday 11 June. The 27-year-old Scot might also feel a twitch in his hamstrings the following morning; were the football season still running, Reid would be climbing out of bed and straight into his football boots. "Nothing else would make me miss out on a Friday night so I can get up at 7am and go out in the most miserable weather," he says.

The passion of people such as Reid has fascinated Alan Powdrill for the past five years. The photographer has spent countless weekends criss-crossing the country in a bid to capture the unsung heroes of Britain's weekend leagues – pub teams, church teams and uniformed groups of friends whose love for football knows no touchlines.

It was a journey that began close to home; Powdrill lives a toe-punt away from Hackney Marshes in east London, where, every weekend, about 1,600 players fill 73 full-size pitches. "My two loves are football and photography but, like a lot of football fans, I've become disillusioned with the professional game," he says. "But what really reassures me is how much these guys love the game. It's what many of them live for during the week, and they play for love not money."

Hackney Marshes has played host to football for more than a century, becoming synonymous with the spirit of the amateur game. Changes are afoot – shiny new goals have already sprouted and Hackney Council is investing millions in the site, mindful of its proximity to the 2012 Olympic Park. But attempts by sponsors to cash in have so far been resisted. In 2006, a decade after Nike shot its era-defining TV ad in which Eric Cantona, David Seaman, and Ian Wright mucked in with the lads to the soundtrack of Blur's "Park Life", the sportswear giant scored an own goal when it used imagery of the Marshes in a range of football gear. Nike agreed to pay an out-of-court settlement when Hackney sued for breach of copyright.

Powdrill concedes that the image of warts-and-all Sunday-league football is pretty familiar but says, "It's the faces and characters of these men that really interest me." The photographer is exhibiting a series of his most striking portraits at realityfootball.org, a site that is as much a tribute to his subjects as it is a showcase for their passions.

Some men are rather more lithe than others, and the age range is vast. In Sunderland, Powdrill met Mitchell Thompson, a 64-year-old who still turns out for Houghton Mill, a pub team. "I'm getting on a bit but I've never missed a season since being 10 years old," Mitchell told Powdrill. "I still enjoy it but dread the day my legs give in and I won't be able to carry on any more."

It was the variety in his subjects' faces that most struck Powdrill. "It was especially true on Hackney Marshes, where there were players and teams representing every nationality, race and religion you can think of," he says. "It's like an atlas down there – you've got Turkish teams, Jewish teams, Asian teams. It's tribal but I've never seen evidence of clashes. They're all there for the same reason."

To see more from Powdrill's series, visit realityfootball.org

REALITY FOOTBALL The Exhibition, 17 June - 13 July 2010, The Printspace Gallery, 74 Kingsland Road, London E2 8DL