It is fair to say that football has its share of specialists, from those deadly in front of goal or with a dead-ball to those who stand out with their aerial ability or penalty saves. Yet there are certain football moves that require such skill and precision that, on the rare occasions they occur, fans lucky enough to be present leave with them etched on their memories.
One such technique involves a moving ball, an unorthodox body posture and a combination of speed, timing and skill. Its execution requires the player to strike the ball by wrapping his kicking leg around the standing one, enabling the favoured foot to be used in situations normally necessitating the weaker one.
While far from universal, the most widely accepted term for this move is the rabona. The trick gained prominence again recently after Argentinian striker Matias Urbano used it to score two stunning goals in successive games for Chilean club side Union San Felipe last August.
“I don’t perform it out of vanity and it’s never premeditated,” the player said at the time. “However, I do practice it, so you could say those goals are the fruit of hard work.”
Video clips of Urbano’s heroics have generated enormous interest on the internet, inspiring countless news reports and ultimately prompting FIFA.com to devote this week’s Off the Ball feature to it. Join us as we take a look at the history of the move and some of the players, from Diego Maradona to Thomas Muller, who have become proficient in the technique.
The origins of the rabona
The first recorded use of the term rabona dates back to September 1948, when an Argentinian sports magazine used it to describe a goal by Ricardo Infante for Estudiantes de La Plata. In Argentina, the expression “hacerse la rabona” means to skip school without your parents’ permission, which leant itself perfectly to Infante’s rebellious act of avoiding his weaker foot by wrapping his stronger one around it.
“It went in the top corner, although I never thought it would end up there,” Infante recalled in 1998 on the 50th anniversary of his feat. “That goal didn’t get the recognition it deserved. At the time we didn’t have televised and media coverage of every game,” rued the sixth highest goalscorer in Albilceleste history.
It is perhaps because Infante’s rabona received so little attention that many Italians credit Giovanni Roccotelli with creating the move some 30 years later. The player gained instant fame in January 1978 when he used it to set up a goal by his Ascoli team-mate Giacomo Tafuro against Modena. Recalling the feat back in 2007, Roccotelli said: “In Bari back in the 1950’s, having a football was a privilege. Playing in the street one day the ball was there for me to hit with my left. Don’t ask me why but I decided to swing my right leg around my left to strike it. We referred to it as incrociata, which means to cross something, like your arms or legs.”
Roccotelli added that Pele himself recognised the Italian’s claims in the 70’s, although O Rei would most likely have referred to it by its Brazilian terms chaleira (kettle) or letra (letter). While the precise origin of these variants remains uncertain, no one disputes the proficiency with which Brazilians such as Rivaldo, Jardel and Robinho later executed the move.
Masters of the art
One player who made the cross-legged trick a useful part of his artillery was Claudio Borghi, a world champion with Argentina in 1986 and now coach of Chile. The former midfielder was always frank about why he performed the rabona, as he explained to FIFA.com some years back.
“For me, it was a case of turning a defect to my advantage, as I never had a good left foot. The beauty of the trick is that opponents don’t see it coming so you can put the ball pretty much where you want. Like anything unpredictable, it causes problems for opponents,” said El Bichi, who grew up watching Maradona execute it while on the books of Argentina Juniors.
And while El Diez was not known for scoring with the trick, he did use it to flight inch-perfect crosses, as former Napoli strikers Ramon Diaz and Careca will readily attest. Another left-footed Argentinian who has mastered the move is Angel di Maria, who used it to score in a UEFA Europa League game for Benfica and provide a couple of assists with current employers Real Madrid. No less proficient is another La Liga star David Villa, who delights the Barça faithful with his not-infrequent demonstrations.
Ricardo Quaresma is also a well known exponent of the rabona, regularly using it to cross the ball from either wing. The Portuguese wide man even made a video tutorial on the subject that became an internet hit. Proving that mastery of the move is not exclusive to Latinos is German sensation Thomas Muller. In his own online tutorial, the winner of the adidas Golden Boot and Best Young Player awards at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ effortlessly demonstrates the skill, before warning aspiring practitioners not to “make your opponent look foolish too often, as they will clatter you at some point.”
Erik Lamela provided the latest, and one of the most extraordinary examples of the rabona in Tottenham Hotspurs' 5-1 demolishing of Asteras Tripolis in a 2014/15 UEFA Europa League group stage match. The Argentina midfielder capitalised on a poor clearance and managed to guide his effort from the top of the area through a crowd of defenders and team-mates, leaving the goalkeeper no chance.
“When the ball came to me, it wasn’t as though I was thinking about doing it," Lamela told the London Evening Standard. "There was nothing in my mind; it just happened in a flash.
“I just wanted to score and that was the most comfortable, effective way of making it happen. It’s definitely something I’ll remember because it was very different from most of the other goals I’ve scored.”
The good, the bad…and the ugly
It goes almost without saying that a well-executed rabona can leave a lasting impression on those who witness it. Just ask the Brazilian Edu: “In 1991 when i was with Mexican side America I was always trying it in training, but with no success. Then I managed to pull off a spectacular one in the form of a cross for my team-mate Toninho, who finished it to score against arch-rivals Cruz Azul in front of 110,000 spectators. People still remind me about it to this day,” he said many years later.
Sometimes even a single demonstration can have far-reaching consequences. In 2007, while making his debut for Swedish club Goteburg, the Peruvian Andres Vasquez lobbed the keeper with an outrageous rabona from the far-right edge of the area, a strike that made him a household name in his homeland and opened the door to an eventual international call-up. Something similar happened to Kuwaiti international Fahad Al Enezi. His rabona goal in a friendly against Saudi Arabia certainly did his reputation no harm, as he signed for Saudi giants Al Ittihad shortly after.
The trick has even spawned a derivative: the false rabona. The initial movement is the same, but the shooting manoeuvre is feigned, allowing attackers to dribble past confused defenders. Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo and Matias Fernandez are just a few of the high profile players known to have this in their repertoires.
Of course, with the move having such a high degree of difficulty, failure to execute it properly can leave players red-faced and open to ridicule, as Australia international Nick Carle and English midfielder David Dunn know only too well. The former went sprawling across the byline after a botched cross against Uruguay, while the latter ended on his backside while attempting a pass for Birmingham City in a derby game against Aston Villa. Needless to say, both men earned the kind of headlines they could have done without.
However, the final word goes to Muller, who says the key to becoming a rabona specialist is to “practice day after day and just try not to break your tibia in the process”. Sound advice indeed…