2014 FIFA World Cup™
In praise of the toe-poke
06 Mar 2015
The toe-poke is one of the game’s more instinctive actions, perhaps *the *most instinctive. Faced with a ball for the first time, a child’s natural reaction is to kick it with their toe. It is not until later, through practice and coaching, that they learn to use other parts of their feet to control the ball, pass and shoot, with a gifted few acquiring the ability to do as they please with it.
Often frowned upon, the humble toe-poke rarely attracts the admiration of the purists, who prefer instead to laud the beauty of a diving header, a curling shot struck with the outside of the boot or a sweetly struck volley. Youngsters are no different, slavishly attempting to emulate the technique of heroes and role models such as Lionel Messi and Zinedine Zidane in school playgrounds and pitches the world over.
In the eyes of the game’s budding stylists, goals should be scored with a nonchalant Thierry Henry-style side-foot, a Madjer backheel or even a long-range free-kick of the kind that Juninho Pernambucano once specialised in, while the team-mate who resorts to using their toe to push the ball over the line deserves nothing but scorn and mockery.
Even educated Brazilians do it*
As our top ten FIFA World Cup™ toe-pokes video shows, however, there is no such snobbery at the highest level, not when trophies and valuable points are at stake. Even the very best players have no qualms about sticking a toe out to get that all-important goal, no matter how ugly it might look. Take Brazil’s Ronaldo. Unconcerned by his status as the best player in the world at the time, the feared *Seleção striker resorted to the most derided of all shots to see off Turkey in the semi-finals at Korea/Japan 2002.
“It was an amazing goal, wasn’t it?”, said the two-time Ballon d’Or winner after catching Turkey keeper Rustu off guard with his surprise finish. “It was a Romario-style goal. It wasn’t very pretty but it was important. I did hit it with my toe. There was nothing else I could do in that situation.”
That man Romario scored a similar goal to see off Sweden in the semi-final at USA 1994, though it was far from the only time O Baixinho resorted to the tip of his boot to prod the ball home, as his former Barcelona coach Johan Cruyff once confirmed in an interview. Asked to name the greatest player he ever coached, the storied Dutchman replied, without a moment’s hesitation: “It has to be Romario. You never knew what to expect with him. His technique was outstanding, and he scored goals from every possible position, most of them with his toe, funnily enough.”
His technique was outstanding, and he scored goals from every possible position, most of them with his toe, funnily enough.
Current Seleção midfielder Oscar paid tribute to the greatest toe-poker of them all in the Opening Match of Brazil 2014, helping his side earn a 3-1 win over Croatia with a similar strike.
“It was a toe-poke, yes. It was a Romario goal,” he told FIFA.com after the game. “Most of us in the team have played futsal, where you use the toe a lot. It was the only thing I could do at that moment.”
Commentating on that match for Argentinian TV was former Boca Juniors front man Diego Latorre, who had nothing but praise for the Chelsea man’s intuitive finish. “It’s a toe-poke,” Latorre told viewers. “What an inspiration piece of play from Oscar. The toe-poke saves you time and lets you hit the ball hard and straight and put it wherever you want.”
Oscar’s was not the only such goal at Brazil 2014, as Spain can vouch for. In their first match the holders were powerless to prevent Robin van Persie poking in from close range as the Netherlands romped to a shock 5-1 win. The defending champions were on the receiving end not once but twice in their next game, against Chile, with Eduardo Vargas and Charles Aranguiz punting the South Americans to a famous 2-0 win at the Maracana and sending the Spanish out of the competition.
Was it or wasn’t it?
The toe-poke has not been without controversy, with debate reaching a notable peak in the group phase at Spain 1982, when Scotland defender David Narey gave his side a surprise lead against mighty Brazil with a thunderous strike from just outside the box.
As well as prodding the Brazilians into life – the Scots eventually went down 4-1 – Narey’s bolt from the blue also prompted some typically forthright analysis from England-supporting BBC TV pundit Jimmy Hill, who dismissively described it as a “toe-poke”, much to the ire of Scotland fans, who have never forgiven Hill for his quip.
The Dundee United defender’s famous shot has long been a topic of discussion, so much so that it even came up when the then British prime minister Gordon Brown met former Brazil midfielder Socrates in 2009. The good Doctor Socrates, who was on the pitch that distant day in Spain, put an end to the debate once and for all by confirming that Narey did not strike the ball with his toe.
If there is one toe-poke that attracts universal admiration in the game, then it has to be the wonder goal that Ronaldinho scored for Barcelona in a thrilling UEFA Champions League last-16 tie against Chelsea in 2005. Finding his path to goal blocked, and surrounded by opposition defenders on all sides, the Brazilian magician shimmied and swayed on the edge of the box before suddenly punting the ball goalwards with his right toe, leaving Chelsea keeper Petr Cech helpless.
Though the Blues ultimately won the day, Ronaldinho’s sublime finish proved that the much-maligned toe-poke can, on occasion, be a thing of great beauty.