By Paul Gardner
There is, going the rounds on YouTube, a lengthy video that purports to unveil exactly what it is that makes Cristiano Ronaldo a great player. Or, as the video explains matters, “sports science experts are going to forensically analyze what makes him such an efficient machine.”
A machine, then. If you watch the video, you’ll get full value, in time at least -- it lasts 45 minutes. Whether, when it’s over, you will have a deeper understanding of Ronaldo, whether you will then get greater enjoyment from watching him play seems to me debatable.
Ronaldo has his superbly athletic body structure carefully measured, his muscles in particular, he takes various tests, including sprinting, zig-zag running, jumping, and trying (successfully) to make contact with a kicked ball when all the lights are suddenly turned off, and various other procedures, one or two of which strike me as being downright silly (and accompanied by even sillier explanations).
That is not to say that the video is not fascinating. It is, in a rather abstract, mechanical way. Exactly what you would expect from the analysis of a machine.
There is, for instance, a learned explanation of exactly (I imagine it must be exact , this is science we’re talking about) what happens to the ball, and how it moves in the air, when Ronaldo takes a free kick.
Well, the ball spins (I think we know that), and to get that spin you have to hit it off center (ho hum), and then we’re into rather abstruse talk about air pressure -- both inside and outside the ball. But Ronaldo’s knuckleball (their term) has no spin and can produce the most horrendous problems for goalkeepers, it seems (now where have we heard that before?).
This is hardly earth-shattering news. We already have this, from a reliable observer watching a spinning tennis ball curve in flight: “Its parts on that side, where the motions conspire, must press and beat the contiguous Air more violently than on the other, and there excite a reluctancy and reaction of the Air proportionately greater.” That was Isaac Newton, writing 340 years ago.
But it is worth knowing that Ronaldo’s power kicks can travel at 80 mph, and that a 20-yard drive is all over in 90 milliseconds.
On the subject of Ronaldo’s free kicks, I’ll admit that I’d hoped for more. One of the more unusual aspects of Ronaldo’s free kicks (and, often, his shooting) is the frequently abrupt, curtailed nature of his follow through.
This seems to me so obvious that I cannot believe anyone, particularly those who are scientifically studying his kicking motion, can fail to remark upon it. Follow-throughs, even if only as a stylistic flourish, interest me. You can perhaps see what I’m getting at if you watch Ryan Giggs taking corner kicks -- watch how he almost folds his left leg across his body as he completes a corner kick. A strange, I won’t say unnatural, motion but certainly an uncommon one.
But our sports science experts in the Ronaldo video make no mention of this, even though they show plenty of examples of Ronaldo with his abbreviated kicking motion, almost as though he is viciously stabbing at the ball. Surely, that must have something to do with his ability to hit a hard shot -- even while on the run -- that dips viciously? A particularly stunning example of that skill came recently when Ronaldo completed a hat trick against Levante with a sudden dipping shot that left the goalkeeper sitting on the ground with his arms outstretched, a despairing, beseeching “What am I supposed to do?” gesture.
But the scientists do their best. They zero in on Ronaldo’s technique and his skill (they identify them as two different categories) and try to measure with a number of awkwardly artificial tests. The tests are fun to watch, and the results seem to show that Ronaldo is remarkable in both categories. But ... we didn’t know that?
What the scientists do not measure -- because, I’m sure, they cannot measure it -- is an abstract quality. Maybe the best single word is flair. Flair is impossible to measure, and it is mighty difficult to define. It includes inventiveness and artistry and audacity and improvisation and style and daring and mischief and a whole longer list of all those vaguely naughty, certainly unconventional and unexpected thoughts and actions that add up to brilliance; maybe some would call it genius.
We saw the Ronaldo brilliance glittering brightly this past weekend. Real was struggling against Rayo Vallecano when Ronaldo won the game for them with a dazzling goal, a goal of superb originality, a goal that sprung from the unmeasurable magic of Ronaldo’s flair.
Running away from the goal, about 12 yards behind him, Ronaldo caught up with the ball and without turning, stepped over it to launch a back-heel shot. The sheer impudence of the shot caught everyone by surprise and the ball speedily threaded its way between five defenders, including the goalkeeper, before it entered the net. The heel shot itself was not a particularly elegant move, but it was perfectly executed, all that was needed to turn Ronaldo’s moment of inspiration into a memorable goal.
Incredibly, maybe six hours after Ronaldo’s goal, we got another similar goal, the result of an impulsive moment of unfettered flair. It came, of course, from Lionel Messi. A quickly taken free kick -- and here the skill was remarkable, as the ball sailed high, surely too high ... but no, not too high, just right to fool the goalkeeper and to drop into the far side of the net. Perfection.
Messi will, I imagine, one day be the target of the sports scientists who will want to measure how he does all those remarkable things. Good luck to them. They will be no more successful than they were with Ronaldo.
Maybe it won’t always be this way, maybe there will one day be a method of defining and measuring flair. In which case there will suddenly arise a new army of specialist coaches, the flair coaches. For all I know, they may already be with us. If they are, then I do not wish them well. May they fail disastrously.
At the moment, as far as I can see, soccer flair springs from the soccer soul, unbidden, untrained, undisciplined -- and, I pray, uncoachable. But I think it does seem to need a special environment. Watch Ronaldo in the science video, and watch Messi in any game. Watch their faces ... and watch those smiles. Ronaldo’s flashes and dazzles, but this is not a Hollywood smile, this has genuine warmth. Messi’s smile may be less dazzling, but it is emotional and moving. Both those smiles make you want to smile. We don’t see those sort of smiles too often in modern, earnest, money-making soccer.
The word for these smiles is ... boyish. Happy, innocent, conveying simple enjoyment. I cannot believe that it is mere coincidence that these two wonderful players should share the gift of a radiant smile. More likely is that those boyish smiles reveal the delight they get from filling their soccer repertoires with boyish fantasies.
I do not believe that scientists will ever be able to measure that spirit, and I think they’re well aware of that. But the coaches -- the ones with the power to crush that spirit -- they’re the ones we have to beware of.