The leaning tower of Messi: The bent right ankle, the curling left, the magical free-kick goal

It’s a ritual you might have watched a thousand times. The referee signals a free-kick, Lionel Messi wanders to the spot, taking his time, as though time would stop for him. He gathers the ball, flips it a few times in his palms, as though sending across a message, then puts the ball on the spot, twists it, almost drill it into the turf and takes four steps back, his eyes un-witheringly on the ball. He strolls to the ball, then stops beside the ball—unlike many free-kickers, he plants almost his entire left-boot on the ground. The right side of the body bends, as though he is falling over, before he uncoils that wondrous left-foot at the stationary ball.

It can be easy to overlook just how brilliant he is at set pieces, given how marvellous he is at everything else on a football pitch. But as a free-kick artiste alone, he would have barged into immortality.

His 60th free kick goal, a 95th-minute howitzer against Lille on Tuesday night, was like most of his other free-kick routines. But it was less about the vicious swing or the wicked drop or the sharp arc—though you could appreciate all the wondrous elements that make a Messi goal, which even two decades of repeat viewing carries the freshness of a summer shower—but the technique, precisely of the twisted, crooked standing foot.

It’s difficult to spot this in real time. Even repeats won’t help. For the broadcasters always trace the path of the ball, from the moment it leaves the foot, to where it lands up, in the hands of spectators in the gallery, on the cupped palms of the goalkeeper, or on the dancing net, or the the shoulders of the cross-bar. Then the camera crashes onto the faces, soaking the myriad emotions of the players, the managers and the audience.

It’s often left to good old photographs to capture the finer, micro, parts of the moment. A photograph invariably ends up telling more than a video, for you could meditate endlessly on the stationary object, as though cameras make statues out of humans, unlike the moving camera.

PSG’s Lionel Messi, right, controls the ball next to Toulouse’s Branco van den Boomen during the French League One soccer match between Paris Saint-Germain and Toulouse, at the Parc des Princes, in Paris, France, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Lewis Joly)

So you spot the flailing right leg of Messi, the ankle bent so wickedly that you feel like those are made of rubber rather than bones. At the precise point he strokes the ball, the entire weight of his body seems to be centred on the right outstep. He is hunched (for better compactness), he arches his shoulder (for precision), the upper body is loose and relaxed (so that there is better transfer for weight into the leg and then the shot is optimal and precise), the lower-half gathering the momentum for the strike.

The upper and lower body mirror and counterbalance each other and he uses the instep technique to make either post an option by facilitating both mild and strong spin on the ball. His body is almost diagonal, like the leaning tower of Pisa, to the ground. This time, though, the ankle of the standing foot is so bent—an imposter could end up months with the ankle on the cast—that he conveys an impression that he had slipped. Or has he? If he were an ordinary footballer, well he could have erred. But it would have gone both unnoticed and uncared. Such is Messi-fixation—a sort of Messi-dependencia to fill their lives for the audience—that whatever he does or does not merge into his myth, adding another fuse of light into his halo.

In a sense, it could be semi-deliberate, half-accidental. Messi arches his body to one side as much as possible so that he could impart the maximum curl into the strike. It’s an age-old technique, free-kick virtuosos contort their body to get the desired effect from the swipe. So after all, the ankle-snap would have been subconsciously deliberate. But he perhaps did not anticipate to ankle to snap so exaggeratedly. But the genius footballer that he is, he seems to have yogic powers to control his body and maintain the balance. Had Messi slipped and plunged onto the ground, he would have scuffed the shot.

PSG’s Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his sides second goal during the French League One soccer match between Paris Saint-Germain and Angers at the Parc des Princes in Paris, France. (AP | PTI)

His free-kicking technique has been widely researched and part of doctoral thesis. The Department of Physics at the University of Barcelona said he uses the Magnus Effect to find his consistency from free kicks. This effect is the phenomenon by which the rotation of a body (the ball) generates a force perpendicular to the line of motion, therefore affecting the trajectory. According to the study, the pressure on the lower surface of the body (the ball) is greater than the pressure on the upper surface, resulting in a force curve trajectory of the body (in this case the ball).

But let reasons not destroy the rhyme of his game. Fascinating though the scientific aspects of his game could be—another study found that the support leg knee is flexed to 26 degree at foot contact and remains flexed throughout the duration of the kick—it destroys the visual treat of a Messi free-kick, fluttering and dancing, slipping past the wall and teasing past the goalkeeper. Fundamentally, whether it was accidental or not, it was a gorgeous goal— he didn’t so much make the ball talk as sing. Watch it and watch it, his free kicks get better with every watch.

His free-kicking technique has remained much the same over the years. It’s baffling in a sense that most free-kick artistes have various ways of taking free-kicks, depending on the distance and angle. Juninho Pernambucano, the godfather of free-kicks, used a longer run-up for long-range ones, but would simply take a step or two and hit the ball with his instep. He had a knuckleball technique too, which he studied late in his career from Cristiano Ronaldo. Roberto Baggio would run at the ball as if he was going to hit it with his laces but turn at the last second and use the inside of his right foot.

But Messi essentially uses just fundamental technique, and makes other subtle adjustments (like the ankle snap perhaps) for placement, curl and drop. It is like his genius encompasses all. Repeatability does not diminish the grandeur of Messi. Rather, it only embellishes his genius, and with every watch, another layer of beauty emerges.

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