Folha Seca: The Arbitrary Importance of History

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When researching and writing (and later “recording”) my first book, An Illustrated Guide to Soccer & Spanish, I looked closely at the history of the Spanish soccer term: chilena, which is “bicycle-kick” in English. Basically, a Spanish expat in Chile pulled off a bicycle kick near the start of the 20th century, it was reported, and the name caught fire. Still, how our society apportions credit for inventiveness kinda bugs me.

At the same time as the chilena came to be in South America, Josep Samitier starred for FC Barcelona in Spain. A continent away, he became known for his famous “lobster-kick”. What is a lobster-kick, you ask. Sadly, no video or even good still image of the lobster-kick exists. Based on a few bare-bones match reports, the move was similar to the “scorpion kick” of a certain loco goaltender for Colombia. Still, can we be sure Samitier did not invent the chilena? And what makes a kick “lobster” as opposed to “scorpion”?

Often, the line between new invention and 10% innovation is razor thin. The most flamboyant showman with the best timing gets the credit. I doubt that dearly departed Johan Cruyff was the first player ever to attempt and complete a “Cruyff turn,” but he did one successfully in a World Cup, so we slap his name on it. Ronaldinho did not invent the elastico, he just perfected and marketed the hell out of it (aided and abetted by Nike).

Despite such arbitrary lines, credit for invention matters because it encourages inventiveness. Everybody lavishes praises on Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo because they are, in a bean-counter sense, amazing players. In the contemporary “too many games” era, they score lots and lots of goals. But, I ask, how many of those goals are in innovative ways? Ronaldo sees a shooting opportunity 10% faster than you. Messi dribbles 15% faster than the opposition and is a precise finisher. But is there a Messi turn? A Ronaldo pivot.

I didn’t mean to shit all over your favorite players. Well, actually, I kinda did. Because the closest we have to creativity in regards to a new move is that Faux-Cruyff Turn Ronaldo does when galloping and then changing directions while sliding the ball behind him. Still, the move does shield the ball and unsettled a defender and buy Cristiano a half second of time, but this is not the stuff dreams are made of.

Thus, I am serious about and seriously worried about finding just exactly how invented the folha seca freekick technique. Folha seca is Portuguese for “dry leaf”, and the name refers to those wickedly swerving knuckle-ball freekicks. The ball doesn’t spin: it just dips unexpectedly. That unedited bastion of knowledge Wikipedia states that Didi, captain of Brazil’s great 1958 and 1962 teams, is the creator.

There’s just one problem: Ladislao Kubala. The Hungarian stud who starred for FC Barcelona in the 1960′s. He is widely credited with having perfected the knuckle-ball freekick. Didi played a single season at Real Madrid in 1960, and Real Madrid was a fierce rival of FC Barcelona where Kubala starred. Hungary also qualified and participated in the same World Cups at Brazil. How can we be sure who invented the folha seca? The Wiki entry includes a single citation to a FIFA website entry that relies on a quote from a player coached by Didi.

That is not a very convincing bit of fact.

Of course, perhaps there is more than one author. Perhaps two great minds that played football, one in Brazil and the other in Spain, both dicked around in practice and found out that knuckle-balls are a goalie’s worst nightmare. Or maybe in La Liga or a World Cup one of them nicked the idea from the other. Neither Kubala nor Didi themselves spoke out to claim credit for their invention.

But inventiveness matters. Soccer as a game is manufactured to all but guarantee a scarcity of goals. Goals matter, but not all goals are equal.

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