In Praise of the Toe Punt

Every fan has their World Cup. 2002 might not have been a classic tournament, but it is unquestionably mine. I have many recollections of that summer, some genuine, many more fabricated: after repeated viewings, my memory has become inseparable from the official DVD review.

I’m not sure if Ronaldo’s (the Ronaldo’s) goal against Turkey in the semi-final is something I witnessed at the time, or whether I have just convinced myself of that fact having now seen it so often. For those who can’t remember it: bursting beyond a Turkish defender, Ronaldo enters the box from the left-hand side. He feints to take another touch, but instead, with a snap of his right leg, toe punts the ball towards the far right-hand corner of the goal. Caught off guard, the Turkish goalkeeper dives, but too late. The goal makes it 1-0 to Brazil. They will go on to win the semi-final and lift the World Cup.

On the biggest stage, Ronaldo’s goal was an up yours to footballing convention. Every coach I’d ever had, had told me not to strike the ball with my toe: it’s the surest sign of a lack of technique. Finesse, I was told, is the preserve of the instep.

I’ve come to think that the disavowal of the toe punt is a curiously British overcompensation. Self-conscious at our reputation for physicality over finesse, we avoid anything that might confirm the stereotype. The toe punt –  a violent stabbing of the ball — is just too close to home.

No such problem for Brazilians. They have made the toe poke an art form. Romario, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho were all masters. At their feet, the toe punt is an act of reclamation: the skilful use of a toe brings football full circle, as the first thing we learn becomes a statement of mastery. For a moment these Brazilians make us forget that we are watching elite level sport. We are back in the playground.

Sadly, the toe punt’s days are numbered. In a game that strives for precision, the loss of the toe punt – a hard to control and explosive action – seems inevitable. I for one will mourn its passing.