The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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Put all your partisanship aside and enjoy the ball in flight. It’s been switched crossed field from the inside-left position by the skillful, balding, English bulldog in ballet slippers to the man on the right touch in all black boots and pomade-infused black hair. Taken out of the air with the inside of the foot and stopped dead by the simplest of grace, the game has changed from a waltz on spiked Lucozade to an aguardiente-inspired pasillo remix. That sequence of events gives me joy. There is technique and there is technique. And, such deft touch is evidence of the latter. What happens next, the soccer equivalent of a crescendo, brings me happiness.

With a dip of the shoulder, a stutter step, Antonio Valencia sends his marker lunging in the wrong direction. But, neither he nor the ball has movedSongbird. I watch this feint and think to myself, “I have seen this move before but where?” Next, with the acceleration of an Italian sports car, or a Jamaican sprinter off the blocks, Valencia explodes down the wing into the hole the defender has left gaping.

A yard of space separates him and the recovering fullback. A cross appears forthcoming, but with the smoothest inside-of-the-foot cutback Valencia sends the defender stumbling toward the byline, the ball still on the imaginary string attached to his black boot. The English pragmatist expects a cross, but ever the improviser, Valencia plays only variations on the expected theme. With the viscosity of helium gas he glides the ball with the outside of his foot on to his stronger right side. The poor defender (maybe two at this point) with “broken ankles” can only stumble and stagger. Space is now abundant. The music has intensified. Valenica can deliver the service as he wishes—a laser toward a darting pea across the box or a tasty treat to a drifting bulldog back post.

I am happy because I just saw an artist’s original expression of soccer. Or, perhaps I am happy because I saw a spirit of the game resurrected. I have seen these moves before in grainy black and white videos of the “Alegria do Povo.”

The first evidence I can find of Antonio Valencia being compared to Garrincha comes from a Man U fansite called ManUtd24 (defending Michael Carrick since 2008). That same day the Guardian put forward an article comparing him to Sir Stanley Mathews. Most commenters on both articles rejected these claims, implying that the then 24-year-old winger is good in the mold of say a Kanchelskis, but a Mathews or a Garrincha? Por favor. But, one year and an absolute shredding of purportedly the world’s best left back later, the similarities between Brazil’s favorite trickster and Ecuador’s Jewel of the Jungle are shocking, and the comparison seemingly more and more just:

How would Garrincha do in the modern game? Wonderfully. But, managers would make him track back, and his stop and start style would be anachronistic in today’s consistently faster paced tempo. Ruthless tactics may squelch his individual creativity. Even more amazing then is that Valencia’s play, and his logo-less black boots, can conjure up images and feelings of a player, of a game, that seemed extinct. Luis Antonio Valencia Mosquera is not Manuel Francisco dos Santos, but doesn’t it make you happy to know that the spirit of the little bird lives?

Nate Boyden is a graduate student studying cognitive psychology and all things soccer at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Popular Ecuadorian folk music descended from the waltz.



by Nate Boyden · May 27, 2011

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