“Bend it like Beckham” has given way to “knuckle it like Ronaldo” in European football. During free kicks, players like Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Tottenham’s Gareth Bale put little or no spin on the ball, which tends to give it the unpredictable movement of a knuckleball in baseball. Bale recently explained his technique:
So where does the ‘knuckling’ effect come in?
Well, as we’ve said, if the ball is struck without spin, it is more susceptible to movement as it flies through the air.
If there are imperfections on the ball, such as specks of mud or grass, then random movement is more likely. Bale would be well served to rub the ball around in the grass as he places it.
Even the seams of the ball’s panels can generate a degree of unpredictable movement.
Bale is not the first exponent of ‘knuckleball’ in the game, of course. Ronaldo has a subtle variation that has wowed fans the world over, while the former Lyon player Juninho Pernambucano did much to perfect the style in the noughties.
YouTube is crap for finding good soccer highlights in HD (FIFA, the European leagues, and their broadcast partners are fanatic about yanking footage) so there’s not a great view of Bale’s technique, but you can kind of see it in this video of his two goals against Lyon earlier this year. The knuckler is also in evidence in this Ronaldo compilation, particularly with goals #7 and #3. Especially #7…Ronaldo hits it right at the keeper, who looks completely baffled by the speed and movement of the ball.