The Skills and the Smiles of Ronaldo and Messi -- Beyond Science

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.

21 comments about "The Skills and the Smiles of Ronaldo and Messi -- Beyond Science".
  1. Soccer Bloke, February 28, 2012 at 6:40 a.m.

    20 yards at 80mph = 465 milliseconds btw

  2. Soccer Bloke, February 28, 2012 at 6:41 a.m.

    Sorry, no 511 milliseconds

  3. tim francis, February 28, 2012 at 9:01 a.m.

    Thanks, Paul-Your writing flair captured their playing flair so well that it made a warm smile come up my spine to shine in mine. I hope my players (can?) read this and get the same.

  4. Chance Hall, February 28, 2012 at 9:18 a.m.

    Well, I never thought I would see the day I would not only enjoy an article from you, but also completely agree. You've touched on one thing that I also believe can't be coached. Call it flair, or as I do, joy, or whatever suits you. I always look for the joy of playing or making a great shot or tackle or save. That's the part of the game I love to see in children or at any age. Never thought I would say this about one of your articles, but well done...

  5. Rick Figueiredo, February 28, 2012 at 9:36 a.m.

    Overall, some good thoughts but let me add a few others. Sometime before World Cup 2010, Ronaldo started pressing the ball into the ground before a free kick. At first I thought this curious as one usually tries to elevate the ball for greater spin and velocity. The reason became simple. He was using the ground to force a downward rotation. As a specialist on free kicks he understood that lateral rotation does not necessarily bring the ball down when kicked with high force. Downward rotation does and high velocity needs to be controlled or the ball (like 7 out of 10 times) takes off and goes over the crossbar. Most free kicks will either have lateral rotation - right to left or right to left depending on the foot being left or right. Very few specialist use the three toes shot, or the outside foot shot because it takes a long time to perfect the needed degree of control on the ball and the plant leg and knee must be tightly locked and planted, something that eventually causes miniscus damage. Now there is one additional aspect to this that very few people in the world are aware of. There is one section of the ball that is heavier than the others. Where the nozzle is. Where you fill the ball with air. Hence in 1997 Roberto Carlos' goal against Barthez in the Tour de France tournament. The youtube piece only scratches the surface. There is all that psychological stuff we have not even begun to evaluate. Shooting is by far the most difficult thing a footballer does in a game. BY FAR!

  6. Jack Niner, February 28, 2012 at 10:29 a.m.

    Should we study the mechanics of an artist, hoping we can can then learn to imitate the painting of a masterpiece? I think not.

    Yes, it will be most humorous to see these 'scientists' study Messi - I'm sure it will be similiar to that of trying to explain how a bumble bee fly's - The scientists say the bumble bee should not be able to fly, but fly it does. Now contrast that with a young unknown Messi-type from a small town in middle America wanting to play soccer in the US at the D1 college, or God forbid, the US MNT. First since he did not play at DA, many coach's won't even bother to look for him. The rest will say he's to small, his SPARQ score is not high enough - In the US size, speed, and strength are far more important than ball skill or soccer IQ. Basically, let the scientists explain why a Messi would have no chance in the US to play soccer.

  7. Steven Jeremenko, February 28, 2012 at 10:44 a.m.

    Why are "scientists" trying to figure out artistic expression in the first place? What an incredible and ignorant waste of time and money. To use the very word "art" in soccer seems to be voodoo, but that is what the game needs now more than anytime in it's history. More individual expressionists, more creative influences, more soccer artists(as I've coin them)are needed to take soccer back to what it actually is: more than a sport, an art form. When I was a boy I never dreamed of "keeping our shape on the field" or "getting the ball out wide" which to me is still just coaching rhetoric. As a boy I dreamed of scoring an unpredictable back heel or inspirational free-kick etc. etc. not that crap. Throughout soccer's history creativity and artistic expression has been suppressed by the so-called leaders who should be letting it flourish - I think Paul referred to them as coaches. And Super Man please, show some intelligence - You and your idiocracy have been ruining soccer for years. I don't need to conduct a scientific study before determining that? GFY

  8. Steven Jeremenko, February 28, 2012 at 11:42 a.m.

    Super Idiot - You've fallen over yourself. Your rhetoric is boring me. You sound like an MLS coach in a post game interview.
    And that's Jenga!

  9. Gus Keri, February 28, 2012 at 11:51 a.m.

    There are two groups of free-kicks' takers. The first one includes the like of Ronaldo and Drogba, and the second one includes the like of Messi, Beckham and Giggs. The first group relies heavily on the physics of the new ball and less on their own skill. The second group relies more on their own skill than on the physics of the ball motion. If you give an old ball to the first group, they will not be as successful, while the second group would not have a problem with either type if balls.

  10. Tyler Dennis, February 28, 2012 at 1:06 p.m.

    All of this ridiculous arguing over something we all love. I liked the videos and enjoyed watching them, because they involve a very good player and a game I love very much.

    Now, things I do with my kids to help them fall in love with scoring and having fun.

    1) In practice a goal doesn't count unless they celebrate - a great celebration can make a goal worth 2 goals (not during the whole practice, but when we finish with a free flowing, no restrictions mini game).

    2) I show my excitement when they do something surprising, connect passes quickly, take someone on, make a wonderful run, recover quickly to defend.... excitement and enjoyment of the game can be "coached" too.

    Alright guys, back to your arguing over how good the article is, isn't. But at least it touches on some enjoyment... after all, we love these players because they PUT EVERYTHING THEY'VE GOT INTO WHAT THEY DO OUT THERE.

  11. Al Gebra, February 28, 2012 at 1:11 p.m.

    Steven Jeremenko - Ignore "super man". Based on his creative writing response to your letter, he's obviously short one corner flag.

  12. Kent James, February 28, 2012 at 2:23 p.m.

    While scientist probably cannot capture the essence of Messi or Ronaldo, there's nothing wrong with them trying to figure out things they can figure out. And if 80% of what makes those players can be duplicated in other players, the world will be a better place if its done. While PG rightfully points out the joy that Ronaldo and Messi express on the field, I'm guessing both players also put in a lot of time and effort into practices that are filled with more effort than joy. Taking thousands of free kicks when no one's watching is more tedious than joyful. And knowing the science behind those kicks will allow players to make those thousands of kicks more effective. So sure, celebrate the spirit and uniqueness of players like Messi and Ronaldo, but don't short change the joy the lesser players can achieve through hours of dedication and hard work.

  13. Jack Niner, February 28, 2012 at 3:25 p.m.

    At least these 'scientists' testing CR7 had a few meaningful tests with a soccer ball. Contrast that to the latest gimmic at the DA's: SPARQ ratings. In keeping with much of the money grubbing at DA's, there are now trainers who will train you now to improve your SPARQ rating. I could say much more about the asinine use of SPARQ to rate soccer players by the DA's and some college coaches, but will stop for it's just so silly.

  14. Tom Symonds, February 28, 2012 at 6:38 p.m.

    Regarding the follow through on his shots, one of the scientists talked about his body positioning and how his whole body comes through the shot. His lack of an extravagant follow through reminds me of Bruce Lee's 3" punch...his arm didn't swing, but his whole body moved through the arm, the fist, and into his opponent - very powerful and effective.

  15. mark courtney, February 28, 2012 at 9:14 p.m.

    Mr. Gardner I am offering my thoughts with respect as I am, dare I say, somewhat new to all things soccer - I am becoming obsessed as I am helping my U8 player son develop. On that note, I will be sending a letter about ideas, concerns and doubts I have about soccer in the US. Your article actually touches a nerve related to the other problems. As an example, maybe all are wrong about the importance of the "follow-through" as we can clearly see it's importance or non-importance perhaps. And I believe the analysts were dissecting what they observed - not what was lacking. I have an odd view about soccer and I would say it has developed from "way outside the box" but there are so many things I believe are terribly wrong with the US approach to soccer. Again, I'll submit all my concerns soon enough - for all to debate hopefully. To the main point, this video (which I enjoyed watching) briefly talked about the effects of the subconscious - during the test which you deemed "silly." I know it is unmeasurable - but we are totally ignorant of it's importance in a players development. We do the greatest damage to a child's true potential by our method of placing him in a line and making him do a drill with his head down going towards a cone. Then hours and hours of the same ... and later we wonder why they never see the bigger picture or larger view of the game. This assertion is also hard to prove, but have any non soccer fan watch an MLS game and then watch any UEFA game and ask which was more enjoyable. I saw this from day one as I started watching to learn more for my sons development - and fluid nature of real soccer, totally lacking from MLS play - that fluidity flows from many subconscious activities which we will never be able measure and as you scoff at this video and their tests you also are totally clueless about the problems facing soccer in the US. Although I now am basically obsessed and enthralled about soccer, I already know that even if my son turns out to be a true star with my help and despite all the usual training, in 20 years we well still be in the same rut that we are in today in this country. "OK boys, get in line ... head down and do this silly drill."

  16. Rudy Espindola, February 29, 2012 at 12:13 a.m.

    Super "Mad "

  17. Kent James, February 29, 2012 at 12:29 a.m.

    Mark; The "get in line, head down, dribble to the cone" is exactly the sort of poor coaching that Paul Gardner rants against on a steady basis. The USSF (US Soccer Federation, the organization that runs most soccer in the US) coaching schools all emphasize more dynamic play ("let the game be the teacher"). They have a manual ("Best Practices") that describes what good coaching should look like (it's very good at showing how kids should develop, by showing what is appropriate at different ages). (It's available as a free download from their website; if you google "USSF Best Practices" you'll get it). They also just came out with a manual that emphasizes skill development even more (I think it's authored by Claudio Reyna, but I haven't looked at it yet, but I've heard its also excellent). But your instincts are right, the coaching you describe creates robots at best (and more likely drives away young players). But I can guarantee Paul Gardner would abhor what you describe; he usually argues that even good coaches do more harm than good (which is where I disagree with him, but he's right that there is a lot of bad coaching out there...)

  18. Rick Figueiredo, February 29, 2012 at 9:36 a.m.

    Message to Mark Courtney. I find your concerns valid. Email me at I have some interesting thoughts for you. If you need to find out who I am first google rick figueiredo.

    Take care

  19. mark courtney, February 29, 2012 at 10:55 a.m.

    To all, I will admit I hardly know PG stance on many things and there is a chance I would agree with many points. I thought the tests where they turned off the lights was actually very informative, where CR still could finish, and it seemed PG thought these were "silly" but I think otherwise. This is what probably rubbed me the wrong way. Personally, I was gym rat growing up - loving basketball. I spent too much time practicing by myself, but was a very good shooter as a result. Also, I was actually a good re-bounder even though I was small. Somehow I realized that because I practiced shooting so much I also became efficient at judging where the ball would bounce back (re-bound) as I collected my missed shots and then shot again. This was all sub conscious of course. Later, in High School I was not able to dominate as I did in grade school and I did not have the best sense or did not see as much during the full court game with 10 players going full speed. So I developed my laser like vision but missed the bigger picture - and I believe I see this happening so much with some training I see. Sure, learn ball mastery early on but also realize passing offers a different type of valid ball touching and having a few players stand still while one runs around them and the passer tries to thread the needle through the chaos is just as important and can be taught from day one.

  20. mark courtney, February 29, 2012 at 11:20 a.m.

    Continued .... sorry,computer was acting up. Back to BB, so later, after collage when I worked out a bit and simply just played full court games I improved quite a bit. But I spent so much time doing "drills" and not just "playing" as a youngster that I missed the boat. True, I mastered the basics early on but I never really integrated them into the "whole" until it was too late - and I see this quite a bit as I watch our select club with different levels spread out on the fields. This is why I am sensitive about what I have seen so far about the early level of coaching I have witnessed.

  21. mark courtney, March 1, 2012 at 10:02 a.m.

    Message for Rick Figueiredo. I did send an email. Happily awaiting reply. Thanks.

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