The Elástico

Rivellino on Mario Bertini: Brazil 4-1 Italy, World Cup final, Estadio Azteca, Mexico City, 21 June 1970

Mario Bertini had no idea what was coming. The overwhelming majority of the watching world had never seen it before. Roberto Rivellino, however, had been honing it for years. Beamed in glorious Technicolor, the first World Cup broadcast live around the globe via satellite was the perfect setting for its premiere.

Rivellino had an absolute howitzer of a left foot and he’d used it to devastating effect in Mexico. All month he had been standing up defenders, shifting the ball to his left and unleashing his “atomic kick”.

So when he stood poised, his left peg hovering devilishly over the ball, Bertini thought he knew exactly what was coming. Sure enough, Rivellino nudged the ball to his left with the outside of the boot. But as the Italian moved to pinch it, Rivellino, in one motion, flicked it back in the other direction with his instep. The ball leapt back as if attached to a piece of elastic and slid between Bertini’s legs. The elástico was born.

But the move was, in fact, more than six years old by the time Bertini suffered perhaps the World Cup’s greatest ever nutmeg. It was adopted by Rivellino after a young Japanese-Brazilian named Sérgio Echigo wowed his colleague by using it to bamboozle opponents on the Corinthians training ground. “I learnt the elástico from Echigo in 1964,” Rivellino recalled in June 2015. “He received a pass and suddenly the defender was taken out of the game with this dribble. It caught my attention and, as dribbling was my main strength, I asked him, ‘What did you do in that movement?’ And then I started doing it.”

The elástico would go on to be made truly world famous by the likes of Ronaldo, who used it to marvellous effect on Lazio’s Alessandro Nesta in the 1998 Uefa Cup Final – the highpoint of a bewitching dribble that emphatically reminded the world that a footballing god was now walking among us.

It’s since become something of a Brazilian tradition, with Romário, Robinho, Willian and Neymar among the long list of those who have utilised the move to humble their markers. But it was Ronaldinho who would become the de facto owner of the trick after it took centre-stage in a Nike advertising campaign ahead of World Cup 2006. He, however, had already helped take it one step further by inverting the trick in a move he’d likely seen his idol Ronaldo execute at Barcelona.

The ‘inverted elástico’ had been the showstopper of a teenage Ronaldinho’s first big season. After breaking into the Grêmio team, the future World Player of the Year announced his arrival in 1999 via a series of duels with Brazil’s 1994 World Cup-winning captain Dunga, who’d returned to home to join Grêmio’s rivals Internacional.

After Dunga had ambled over to close him down following a short corner, Ronaldinho dragged the ball back behind his standing foot before flicking it back the other way in a rabona-like move to beat the ageing volante on the outside. It was one of the many highlights of a rise that earned Ronaldinho a late call-up to the Copa América squad that year and it was in the pre-tournament warm-up games that the crowd christened a new star by denoting his southern roots with chants of ‘Gaúcho, Gaúcho’.

The one that got away 

George Best on Johan Cruyff: Netherlands 2-2 Northern Ireland, World Cup qualifying, De Kuip, Rotterdam, 13 October 1976

From Romário on Diego Maradona to Ronaldo on Paolo Maldini, many of the game’s greats have suffered the indignity of a nutmeg, but few have become mythologised quite like George Best’s on Johan Cruyff. Unfortunately, you won’t find the footage on YouTube and nor will it one day be unearthed on a dusty VHS tape plucked from some dark corner of a Dutch attic. The cameras missed it. This is the one that got away.

The journalist Bill Elliot had sat next to Best on the journey to the stadium that night. “Holland… and Cruyff were at their peak at the time,” Elliot recalled in the Guardian in 2005. “George wasn’t. I asked him what he thought of the acknowledged world number one and he said he thought the Dutchman was outstanding. ‘Better than you?’ I asked. George looked at me and laughed. ‘You’re kidding aren’t you? I tell you what I’ll do tonight... I’ll nutmeg Cruyff first chance I get.’ And we both laughed at the thought.

“Five minutes into the game he received the ball wide on the left. Instead of heading towards goal he turned directly infield, weaved his way past at least three Dutchmen and found his way to Cruyff who was wide right. He took the ball to his opponent, dipped a shoulder twice and slipped it between Cruyff’s feet. As he ran round to collect it and run on he raised his right fist into the air.”

By 1976 the Dutch were well on their way to mythical status and Best’s raised fist proved a game-changer. It was five-fingers-up to Northern Ireland’s superiors and, more significantly, it signalled a levelling of the playing field. 

“It gave you a lift,” recalled Jimmy Nicholl. “You felt, ‘Right, here’s one of the best players in the world, if not the best, and he’s playing for us.’ I remember thinking, ‘This is great, he’s just nutmegged a great player.’ And I honestly felt, ‘Come on then, we deserve to be here.’”

That Netherlands side were in the middle of two historic World Cup final appearances. They would claim neither trophy, but would perhaps achieve something more important as they captured the world’s hearts in way unrivalled by anyone other than Rivellino’s Brazil, and, at a stretch, Uruguay’s early Olympic successes.

Best’s nutmeg told his colleagues that the Dutch, even Cruyff, were human, fallible. To him it may well have been little more than an outlandish moment of hubris, but it had a knock-on effect that inspired his teammates to a commendable draw.

“If he had done it to me, I’d have kept running all the way to Buenos Aires.” 

Fernando Redondo on Henning Berg: Manchester United 2-3 Real Madrid, Champions League quarter-final second leg, Old Trafford, Manchester, 19 April 2000

Tracked by the assiduous Henning Berg, Fernando Redondo set off down a blind alley on the left wing, never once lifting his glance from the ball. By the time the Argentinian turned back, his option of a pass to the supporting Roberto Carlos had been cut off by two Manchester United players who’d joined the chase. There was nowhere to go. Onlookers no doubt cursed an uncharacteristically poor decision from a midfielder Fabio Capello once described as “tactically perfect”.

These are the moments that prove the true test of footballer’s guile. What to do when there is no tactical solution, no natural option? When nothing you’ve learnt from the thousands of hours of coaching can save you? The greats improvise, drawing instead on the informal education they gained during the unorganised kickabouts of their youth.

For Redondo, the answer was simple, instinctive. And so came the tacónazo. His back to Berg, Redondo stamped his left foot down in front of the ball, sending it flying back behind him and between the legs of the bewildered Norwegian. Spinning to keep the ball in play, Redondo finally got his head up and rolled the ball across the box to provide the onrushing Raúl a tap-in from six yards, and the rest of us one of the most iconic moments of the Champions League.

There may have been a certain degree of luck about the nutmeg itself. Berg was side-on when the ball went through his legs, his left foot having stepped across his right in a natural running motion. Had the ball travelled a fraction of a second earlier, or later, it likely would’ve caught Berg’s boot. Moreover, Redondo may have intended to send the ball one way of the defender and spin around the other, but that takes nothing away from the ingenuity of the move.

“It didn’t surprise me that Fernando tried it but it did surprise me that it came off so, so cleanly,” his Real Madrid teammate Ivan Campo said. “If he had done it to me, I’d have kept running all the way to Buenos Aires.”

It was the crowning moment of a midfield masterclass. “Redondo must have a magnet in his pants,” lamented the United manager Alex Ferguson. “He was fantastic, unbelievable. He had one of those games. Every time we attacked and the ball came out of their box, it fell at his feet. Every time.”

Petit-pont 

Thierry Henry on Danny Mills: Arsenal 4-1 Middlesbrough, Premier League, Highbury, London, 10 January 2004

We’d worked so bloody hard. We’d resisted theory and rejected intellectualism. We’d ignored the Scottish passing game and pledged our allegiance to a kick-and-rush style more analogous to the charge of the Empire. We’d long since deserted pressing, too, leaving it for the Germans to reinvent decades later. And just as importantly, we’d successfully marginalised the dissenters; cultural anomalies like Rodney Marsh, Frank Worthington, Stan Bowles, Alan Hudson and Laurie Cunningham had been limited to just 31 England caps between them. 

But now everything had changed.

With the Premier League we’d made a rod for our own backs. Live football on television had brought money, glitz and glamour to our once honest virtue. The EU had robbed us of the quotas that hitherto provided our last great defence against the bloody immigrants. So in they waltzed with their fancy skills, multilingual charm, new-fangled tactical schemes, afternoon naps and pasta.

All our shaven-headed full-back wanted to do was, admirably, bravely, conservatively, shepherd the ball out of play. It was stoppage time. A foreigner’s foreigners were 4-1 up. Danny Mills simply wanted to do something familiar, to remind us that though the old armchair had been replaced with a sleek, contemporary chaise-longue, this was still our home.

But it was too late. We’d sold the deed. So instead, it became the moment a Frenchman took it upon himself obliterate the last vestige of our great game. One had already turned his collar up, taken our trophies, kicked our skinheads and puzzled us with his metaphors. And now came young va-va-voom, with his suave good looks and socks pulled so high over the knee it felt as if we were being repeatedly bludgeoned to death with the silk handkerchief of a go-go girl.

Only six of the twenty-two that day were English. Mills was a dying breed and he knew it. He had become so desperate that he had even broken his own code by his ungentlemanly goading of Henry as the Arsenal man stepped up to take a penalty. 

“Mills upset Thierry and that’s not the best thing to do,” said Arsène Wenger, the mastermind behind the foreign invasion. “He was standing in front of me and talking to me before the penalty and I don’t think that was fair,” moaned Henry, as if any part of this was fair. Henry had scored, of course, sweeping the ball past Mark Schwarzer before pumping his fist in Mills’s face. But that was mere foreplay. The kiss of death was yet to come.

Mills made himself as wide as possible, holding off the advancing Frenchman to watch the ball roll out of play in the corner. Henry probably fouled Mills as he pulled at the Englishman’s shoulder, but we don’t dive, see, so play continued long enough for Henry to nip around the other side, collect the ball, drag it back, and nudge it forward between Mills’s legs. 

Highbury erupted. Henry strolled away. Mills, discourteously, one might add, threw up his hands in disgust at the linesman before humbly placing them at his hips. Humiliated, he didn’t even bother turning to see what happened next. It didn’t matter. It was over. This was the coup de grace, delivered via a petit-pont.

Showtime 

Juan Román Riquelme on Bastian Schweinsteiger: Germany 2-2 Argentina, Confederations Cup, Frankenstadion, Nuremberg, 21 June 2005 

Bastian Schweinsteiger had endured all he could take. He was the future. He’d win Champions Leagues and World Cups. He was technically gifted, too, but combined it with the athleticism to run and defend. And here was this relic, waltzing around without even breaking sweat. The time had come to exterminate his kind. The German midfielder sensed his opportunity when a short pass left Juan Román Riquelme frozen amid a trio of resourceful Germans. Román was trapped. Schweini attacked.

Riquelme, never once looking in the German’s direction, feinted to play the ball forward, but instead planted his foot on top of the ball and rolled it at a 90-degree angle to his left and between the Bayern midfielder’s legs. The pitch opened up. All three Germans were out of the game. Schweini did a little hop of embarrassment, turned and gave up. Riquelme strolled away into the space for which he had eternally searched.

El ultimo diez, Riquelme was an artist imprisoned in a world full of athletes. If you look up the word “daedal” in any reputable dictionary, there should really be a picture of Román. He’s a mysterious character, contrasting and ambiguous. A quixotic soul, he has a huge ego, but one that he seemed to wear almost as a safety blanket to cover an underlying fragility. He always appeared uneasy in the spotlight, yet couldn’t survive without it – unable to operate in a team that wasn’t built entirely around him. And never did he relish the attention more than in the brief moments following a caño.

His most spectacular arrived against Rosario Central in a 1998 league match. Receiving the ball on the right as the delightfully naive Charles Pérez decided it would be a good idea to press, Riquelme performed a variation of the pirouette made famous by the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Maradona. While the trick is to drag the ball back with one foot before spinning 180 degrees and rolling it away with the other, in the second half of the movement Riquelme instead played a full-on back-heel, sending the ball darting between Pérez’s widespread feet.

His most spellbinding was the ‘ghost nutmeg’ in 2014 against Lanús. Receiving the ball with his back to goal with Carlos Roberto Izquierdoz approaching from behind, Riquelme swung his boot forward as if to return it, but missed the ball entirely, allowing it to continue on its journey through Izquierdoz’s legs and into the path of the waiting Emmanuel Gigliotti. Had Gigliotti possessed even 10% of his colleague’s awareness, the striker would have been clean through on goal.

But the most famous of all remains the nutmeg on Mario Yepes against River Plate from the quarter-finals of the 2000 Copa Libertadores. Trapped on the right touchline as Yepes closed in, Riquelme rolled the ball to his left before turning his back to his marker and dragging it back between the Colombian’s legs. The commentator Juan Pablo Varsky let out a high-pitched chuckle of delight, before simply squealing, “showtime” in English. To this day it remains one of the most replayed moments in the history of Argentina’s greatest rivalry.

Not only did it humiliate a River player, it symbolised the subversion of the Boca-River dichotomy ahead of a decade that would prove the most successful in Boca’s history. Los Millonarios (a nickname River earned due to their early outlay on huge transfer fees) were supposed to play expansive, passing football while Boca’s legacy was built on blood and guts. Riquelme, who inspired the club to three of the four Libertadores titles in the noughties, stood in opposition to that.

But the nutmeg on Schweinsteiger holds a larger symbolic significance to the game as a whole. With one effortless roll of a right boot, Riquelme reminded us why he holds such a special place in the hearts of football’s increasingly marginalised romantics – that he was a footballer who remained uncompromisingly cerebral in a world that was becoming ever more visceral.

“Oh no, no, no!” 

Juan Sebastián Verón on Renato Ramos: Estudiantes 1-0 Bolívar, friendly, Estadio Único, La Plata, 25 July 2008

As a Bolívar attack broke down, the ball ricocheted out to Juan Sebastián Verón 25 yards from his own goal. He coolly played it into midfield before receiving a return pass. But as he leisurely welcomed back an old friend, the tenacious Renato Ramos took it upon himself to try to disturb the harmonious couple. Verón, visibly irked, shrugged Ramos aside, turned to his right and opened up his body to play a simple pass wide to his full-back. But still Ramos came.

Verón had to put a stop to this. Never once dignifying Ramos with even a glance, he rolled his foot across the top of the ball, ushering it peacefully to his left and between Ramos’ feet. “Oh no, no, no,” recoiled TyC Sports commentator Julián Bricco. “Did you see what Verón just did?”

This method of caño is a particular favourite in South America. Verón’s was executed with such nonchalance and caught so wonderfully by the cameras in attendance that night, it provides the perfect illustration of a move that has bewitched and embarrassed footballers the world over. Indeed, Verón added his own name to its list of victims during a 2010 league match against Banfield, when Walter Erviti executed an identical ‘roll’ as Verón tried to press.

While pushing, flicking or kicking the ball leaves the player in possession with a limited number of potential directions in which it can be sent with a single movement (if you want the ball to go to the right, you must first position your foot to its left), once a boot is planted atop the ball it can be sent in any direction of a 360-degree radius with one motion.

The roll also allows the player to disguise his move more effectively because it places no restrictions on the player’s body shape and at no point does it require him to look down. In this instance, Verón’s body was open, his eyes focused exclusively on the teammate directly ahead of him. Ramos would have been well versed in this modus operandi, so was likely bamboozled because he hadn’t expected Verón to execute such a risky move so close to his own goal and with nobody behind to cover.

Many have been caught out by the more familiar roll inside, but the freedom of movement granted by the roll has allowed some of the best to arrive at more unnatural angles. One of Argentina’s most famous arrived via an adolescent Sergio Agüero, who deceived Gimnasia de Jujuy’s Franco Sosa by rolling the ball behind him to swivel 270 degrees on the touchline.

And the Brazilians love it, too. Barcelona’s Neymar gave one to Atlético Madrid’s Thiago in 2014, but rolled the ball straight ahead. Lucas Moura did one 90 degrees to his outside on Ceará’s Boiadeiro in 2011, while Ronaldo executed a brilliantly disguised one on Valencia’s David Albelda in 2005 that allowed the Brazilian to turn 180 just as the ball was running out of play.  Robinho has dished out dozens over his career – as has Ronaldinho, who reserved a special one for Chievo’s Luca Rigoni at San Siro in 2010.

“Nutmegs, I prefer.” 

Adel Taarabt on Joe Allen: Queens Park Rangers 4-0 Swansea City, Football League Championship, Loftus Road, London, 26 December 2010

Adel Taarabt dragged the ball back with his right foot before flicking a short pass with the heel of his left. Stepping inside, he demanded it back.

Joe Allen had no reason to race towards him. “I saw the player coming from the side,” Taarabt told Sky Sports. “And I knew even before he came what I was going to do.” Allen certainly didn’t. The Moroccan rolled the ball from his right foot to his left before shifting it back from whence it had come and nudging it straight ahead between Allen’s legs. Through it went, leaving Taarabt free to shift it on, open up his body and curl a 20-yard shot past Dorus de Vries in the Swansea goal.

He was in the mood that afternoon and, during those brief moments, there was nobody in England better to watch. Adel Taarabt ‘standing you up’ was the most fearsome sight in the country during a season that saw him hit 19 goals and walk the Football League Player of the Year award. He was so good that even the banterific Soccer AM was worth watching as Taarabt dominated the now desperately dull Showboat feature with one nutmeg after another.

Allen’s teammate Neil Taylor got one. So did Reading’s Jimmy Kébé and Jem Karacan. Norwich City’s Zak Whitbread suffered a particularly humiliating one. Coventry’s Richard Keogh got two in one sitting. Nottingham Forest’s Paul McKenna took one on the same afternoon that his teammate Chris Cohen was beaten so many times consecutively that he simply fell over, in what the NBA terms a good old fashioned ‘ankle-breaker’.

“I’ve never, ever seen talent like Taarabt’s,” said his antithesis, and QPR teammate, Shaun Derry, echoing a statement made by his former manager Harry Redknapp when Taarabt first broke through as a teenager at Tottenham Hotspur. Currently kicking his heels on the Benfica training ground, that talent has been depressingly squandered. 

Instead, he has carved out a more leftfield legacy, that of a ‘pana king’, thanks largely to his magical ability to use the familiar as a ruse. That which the opponent believes to be the turn is, in fact, merely the pledge. “My thinking all the time is to anticipate what the defender thinks I’m going to do,” Taarabt revealed. It’s game theory. The initial action is intended to coax the opponent into a reaction, which Taarabt in turn counteracts.

He achieves this by presenting the defender an elementary and well-known trick, before subverting the skill by adding an extra dimension, almost always executed with the opposite foot. It is that addition of an unnatural motion that has left scores of defenders utterly perplexed as they helplessly witness the ball roll between their legs.

One of his favourites is to drag the ball back with his right foot before a Cruyff turn-like touch pushes it out from behind his standing leg. That is a dribble we’ve all seen thousands of times, from the Camp Nou to our local astro turf. Taarabt, however, would extend the trick by subsequently pulling the ball back with what was his standing foot, before instantly nudging it forward and between the legs of his opponent with the original boot.

Perhaps Taarabt was simply before his time. Had the jet-setting freestyler who generates income through YouTube views have been born some 15 years previously, one wonders if Taarabt would have taken a different career path. Those of us who only watch the more formal version of football can only be thankful that he wasn’t.

The Natural Order

Cristiano Ronaldo on Steven Davis: Northern Ireland 2-4 Portugal, World Cup 2014 qualifying, Windsor Park, Belfast, 6 September 2013

Over in Barcelona, Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez appear to view defenders as little more than human traffic cones that frustratingly block their way to goal. For them, nutmegs seem to arrive by economy: the shortest distance between any two points is a straight line.

For the rest of the world, the nutmeg is not a tool that invariably provides an instant, tangible advantage. Rather, it’s often more about sending a message during the intimate battles that can fly under the radar of the game’s onlookers. Verón and Riquelme’s did exactly that. They said, “Don’t press me. I’m too good for you. Tranquilo, stop wasting everyone’s energy.” For others, like Best, it was about bravado. To humiliate your opponent in this way is personal. And it’s frequently utilised as a means to illustrate one’s technical superiority and re-establish the hierarchy.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s on Steven Davis in 2013 was most certainly about status. Cristiano is a man defined by his obsession with being the best. While Messi is organic, his extraordinary talent natural, Cristiano is unequivocally man-made. From his chiselled, hairless torso to his gelled hair, he is wholly synthetic, contrived, as if a higher being has manufactured the perfect contemporary footballer.

His astonishing career has not been built solely on natural ability. He has huge talent, but many with infinitely more have faded into obscurity. Ricardo Quaresma, the man once seen shaming Portuguese defenders on the opposite flank at Sporting, is a case in point. Both had the same start to their careers and, if anything, Quaresma held an advantage by having greater technical gifts. Their subsequent careers, however, could not have been more different.

It says much about us that we champion Messi over Cristiano. The genius over the grafter. Cristiano’s unrivalled work ethic is worthy of huge admiration. He serves as one the world’s great reminders that, if we work hard enough, we can not only achieve anything, we can achieve everything. But still we sneer, leaving Cristiano endlessly having to prove his worth.

Poor Davis was just a man in the wrong place at the wrong time, undone by his own, more misplaced, sense of industry. He should’ve given it up after the first turn. Like so many of the victims in this list, there was no need to close down his tormenter. Receiving the ball back-to-goal just over the halfway line, Cristiano Ronaldo had a simple short pass inside to João Moutinho.

But still Davis came, refusing the Portuguese the respect he deserved. Cristiano executed a Cruyff-turn to provide himself another easy pass, this time to Raul Meireles, and offer Davis one last chance to give it up. But Davis wouldn’t let it go. He was asking for it. So Cristiano gave it to him. Stretching out a right boot as he turned once more, Cristiano dragged the ball back at an angle to his right and through Davis’s legs, allowing the Northern Ireland midfielder to complete his 450-degree turn of shame.

Cristiano skipped away. Stopped. And dropped a no-look backheel to complete the Moutinho pass he would’ve played six excruciating seconds ago if not for Davis’s misguided resolve. Cristiano stood tall, puffed out his chest and walked away. We remembered. The natural order restored, he followed it up with a hat-trick to drag his side back from 2-1 down.