If Google allowed me to capture my most searched-for item on YouTube – behind Ja Rule collaborations – we’d find variations on the same theme. The storied highlights of a few players. Bergkamp, Riquelme, Berbatov, Özil, Ronaldinho. For as long as I have loved football, I have been mesmerised by a player’s touch. That moment the ball makes its initial contact, how the body receives the ball falling from the sky, how the ball finds home at the feet of a footballer and how the ball is given as a perfectly wrapped present.
When we were kids, we played a game called SLAMS. The concept was simple; the only necessary equipment a wall and a football. If you were comfortable losing to yourself, you didn’t even need other players – it could be a fulfilling solo activity. The game began with the ball smashed against the wall, the ferocity a marker of how seriously the session would be taken. From then, you had one touch to return it to the wall, each rebound managed by whoever was next in line. If you took two touches or missed the wall, you lost a letter. Once the word SLAMS had been sacrificed by a series of mistimed, poor touches, you were out, consigned to sitting on the doorstep, watching the action unfold in front of you. The aim was to be the last one left holding some letters, to have your touch vindicated only by the standard surrounding you.
Despite a childhood of playing until the sun left us, I was never able to master a relationship with the ball in the way it is so obvious my heroes were able to. I could never cushion a long ball. I could never count on my first touch in front of goal to be the right one. I could never rely on my body instinctively making decisions before my brain needed to kick in. And so it was these failings that sparked my unrelenting devotion to players who were able to stop time with their touch.
There is a particular type of goal that Dennis Bergkamp is most famous for, exemplified in his goals against Argentina, Newcastle, Leicester, Tottenham. The common thread running through Bergkamp’s greatest moments is the way defenders only feature to demonstrate his brilliance. Their utility is reduced to brightly coloured cones, stationary markers in a training ground exercise. In Bergkamp’s world, defenders exist as props, as a means to his end: making art. When he scored his hat-trick goal against Leicester in 1997, the footballer he has just beaten stands aghast, hands on his head. I always wonder what he was thinking right at the moment Bergkamp spins him and what he thinks now, almost twenty years on. To be immortalised precisely because you were made to disappear. That’s what a first touch can do.
While Fulham were a Premier League mainstay and Craven Cottage was home to the languid, meaningful movement of Dimitar Berbatov, I was once lucky enough to observe his genius from a few hundred feet away. What struck me was the same trait everyone notices – his apparent disinterest, the ends of his sleeves tucked into his palms, the arrogance of his walk, never rushed, never closing down. That is, until the ball hurtled towards him, at which point he seemed to belong in a parallel universe where good intentions are rewarded with stopped time. Berbatov removed all malice from the ball with the slight of his foot, passing it along as quickly as it arrived with him. He barely moved but managed to find everything he was looking for.
Perhaps Berbatov was remarkable for the same reason winners of SLAMS were. His excellence only exceptional because of what was not happening around him, the last player on the field with their letters intact. It’s not that his teammates weren’t blessed with the gift of touch but that they instead opted for functionality, winning ugly if a game required it. They chose to lace every inch of grass with their sweat whereas Berbatov moved purely on a need-to-do basis. Or perhaps it is better to consider these players as outliers, indulgences in teams that are capable, maybe only briefly, to foster their genius.
SLAMS also taught me about the kindness of a good rebound. The heady mix of being in just the right place at the right time to receive a measured ball and put your shot away. That ball could feel like getting a reward for a good deed you didn’t mean to do. Similarly, there is a sequence to football that makes it a team sport unlike any other, possibilities for intentionally kind rebounds endless. The ball passes from back to front, side to side, sometimes touching the feet of all eleven players, until hopefully, it moves into the back of the net.
With players like Juan Román Riquelme, a touch creates patterns, angles previously unseen and passages of play that demonstrate a gentle, loving relationship with the football. Riquelme’s touch quietly built sequences, opening up space and, like Bergkamp, disappearing defenders. He often paused, remaining unhurried, a figure of calm on the field – as though he knew time stopped when the ball was at his feet.
Footballers like Riquelme, like Özil, Berbatov, Bergkamp and Ronaldinho seem to have been blessed with an extraordinary relationship with a ball and crucially, an unwavering belief in their own truth. They carry a desire to awe those that are watching closely enough.
What this genre of players also shares is a decision to express themselves on a football pitch primarily through beauty. And the reason they have all been able to make careers as professional footballers is because, more often than not, they have existed on that increasingly fine line between beauty and functionality, scoring and creating goals – but with audacity and grace. Demanding not only the best of their teammates in these perfect sequences, but of us, the viewers. Demanding that we take a moment to observe what joy looks like in motion, showing us their letters as for most of us, ours are long lost.