There is an old story told about a 19-year-old John Cleese, that when he returned briefly to his old prep school to work as a teacher he would sit quietly but energetically in the corner of the staff room, completing The Times crossword at formidable speed. One day he made the error of leaving the paper in view of a 12-year-old boy, who pointed out that the letters on the grid were total gibberish.
“I know that, and now you know that,” Cleese told him. “But the other masters don’t, and they think I’m a genius.”
When faced with one’s own incompetence, the truly flair player cloaks it in magnificence.
Enter Tottenham’s Erik Lamela. As his wonder “rabona” goal continues to rush at exponential speed into every corner of the internet, there is cause to wonder if its primary purpose isn’t chiefly a highly effective advertisement for his total one-footedness.
A cursory bit of YouTube research reveals some fundamental truths about the rabona – the name given to that most mesmerisingly pointless of manoeuvres – to yogically displace one’s worse foot with one’s better before sending in a cross, or very occasionally a goal.
Firstly, the Argentines – of whom Lamela is one – love it. It is fortunate too, given that its literal translation is “to play truant”, that football’s favourite truant Carlos Tevez has never properly attempted one. The headlines would be too confusing.
More tellingly (with one notable exception) its leading protagonists tend not to be world-beaters.
The ultimately underwhelming Ricardo Quaresma* loves it, but to little effect.
It is essentially the footballing equivalent of the amateur snooker player who, knowing he has no hope with the rest, plays the shot with the cue behind his back. If the pot goes in, he’s briefly a genius.
He’s no such thing.
Try to locate a clip of a Messi rabona on YouTube and all you’ll find are a hell of a lot of video-game clips, mainly uploaded, incidentally, by teenage Filipino boys – one hopes Interpol’s monitoring algorithms make allowances for such matters. Such is the great man’s two-footedness, and low centre of gravity, he has never had cause to deploy that radical, instant change of shooting angle the rabona offers.
Arguably, its most devastating deployment came from Chris Boswell of Rice University who, when restarting a college American football match, cheekily rabona-ed the ball to the wrong side, for his own team-mate to recover, and secure a first down. It takes the commentators four replays to work out what has happened.
It’s said of Bobby Charlton that no one truly knew if he was right- or left-footed – it took his brother Jack’s childhood testimony to confirm he favoured his left. To rabona is to end that debate in an instant.
On a personal note, this column, once playfully known to its Upminster Park Rovers team-mates as the “one-footed donkey” still remembers being forced into a very reluctant rabona.
Still long months away from securing its Cub Scouts orienteering badge, this column found itself entirely lost on the right flank, and in a moment of lofty ambition wrapped its left leg around its standing right, but then sought to kick not the ball but its own right foot high into the box. The result was a goal-kick, and a humiliation that has never fully gone away.
It is a humiliation shared, though he may not know it, by David Dunn, who in rabona-ing the ball into the back of his own left leg then falling over has ensured his name is mentioned whenever the matter is discussed.
But the contrasting examples raise a question not just about football but all sport: is there an intrinsic value in showboating?
Cristiano Ronaldo’s solitary rabona came for Manchester United against Fulham, when, under no pressure whatsoever, he deployed the method to put in a rather basic cross.
The rabona sits at the nexus of whether sport exists for the fan’s entertainment or for the pursuit of personal glory by the player. To rabona in a close match will antagonise the fan, given the risk factor involved. To rabona when the game is won is disrespectful.
If football fans wanted merely to see tricks and flicks, the game would have spawned its own version of the Harlem Globetrotters long ago.
The one exception is Angel Di Maria. His left-footed rabona-ed goals and crosses for Benfica and Real Madrid are only made all the more spectacular by his crashing right-footed shots and volleys.
And all the more terrifying for the defender who must rush out to meet him, with no idea in his head about what might happen, and the paralysing fear of embarrassment already lurking.
It is a dizzying height the 22-year-old Lamela might one day reach. He’s got a long way to go yet, mind.
* A brief quiz, it being El Clasico today. If Ricardo Quaresma, Gerard Pique and Henrik Larsson are the answers, what is the question? Tweet your answer to @tompeck. The prize? Respect.