Ronaldo's goal heading for the hall of fame
Last week was, in many ways, a week of headers, the domestic Champions League fixtures garnished with two brilliant headed goals in Manchester United's draw at the Bernabeu, and beyond that by the cultural misunderstandings of the "grapple defence" system employed by Juventus at Celtic Park.
It was as if an anti-header measure had got the entire home bench on its feet convinced some horribly intrusive Euro-wrong was being visited upon them, as though rather than simply permitting a little close-quarter wrestling the referee had instead been caught hurling skip-fulls of non-metric shortbread into a quarry or remorselessly pulping our unbent bananas.
Cristiano Ronaldo's headed goal, in particular, seems to have inspired a folkish reverence in the English media. There has been an almost sensual lingering on its geometric details, the torque and thrust of the mahogany-hued Ronaldo physique on its balletic upwards parabola.
On Sky Sports Graeme Souness seemed beside himself just talking about it, shaking his head and smiling weirdly as though witnessing for the first time a wonderful talking dog. If Danny Welbeck's goal was arguably just as good – involving as it did redirecting the ball backwards while simultaneously being punched in the face by Sergio Ramos – Ronaldo's header stood out for reasons of its own. Most obviously it had that unique Ronaldo quality of flaring physical hyperbole, the basic notion of a headed goal from eight yards out refashioned into something bespoke and gratuitously emphatic, like winning the Tour de France riding your bike backwards, just because you can.
Ronaldo's header! It was, let's face it, almost a parody of a header, a 1950s football theme-park header complete with actual hanging in the air, hair-gelled retro-styling, and some unspoken note of filial tribute that seemed to twang just the right nodule in English football's jaded and gristly pleasure ducts, bringing forth a great foaming spume of involuntary pleasure.
Yes: Ronaldo is of course essentially English. Hence the urge to linger a little too tenderly on his heading prowess, as though it is here that the true expression of his genius lies, a skill that the Premier League can reasonably claim to have donated graciously from its knapsack of traditional strengths.
Ronaldo has scored 16 headed goals in the past three years out of a total of 151. And yet it is the headers we tend to dwell on, like a carpenter who spends half an hour gazing with rapt attention at Picasso's Guernica and comes away muttering that you just don't get precision dovetail framing like that any more.
There are sound political reasons for this, not least the fact that heading itself has become something of an outlaw art in recent years. The header, or at least the headed lifestyle, has been in retreat for some time, a natural corollary to football's reinvention as a non-concussive discipline of the lower body.
Domestically, this has been a painful process. It was in England that heading the ball first began to flower as a front-rank attacking gambit and there remains a deep male reverence here for what is a largely overlooked but still tangible headed culture, for the centre-half who doesn't just repel the punted ball but has, as was once said of Puskas's left foot, "a head like a hand" – able to funnel and glance and ping the ball to a teammate, a dinosaur skill from a vanishing airborne world.
And yet there is a sense of some change afoot. For all its historical rolling back, the headed goal might just be having a moment. The prominence of headed goals in the group stages of Euro 2012 was widely noted, propelled in part by the fashion for rampaging Cafu-lite full-backs and centre-backs whose chief skill is striding forward with ball at feet like brave, doomed, handsome infantrymen in a TV mini-series about the horrors of the Western Front.
In the Premier League and Bundesliga 20% of all goals have been headers, up on recent seasons, while in La Liga the figures would be similar but for one massive anomaly: Barcelona (you again) have scored just one headed goal all season out of 78, evidence not just of tactical difference, but perhaps also of an ideological disdain for the header.
This is in itself a sign things have gone far enough, that there is simply no point in trying to ape this level of rarefied header asceticism.
Perhaps it is time for the header not just to creep back in through the cat flap, but also to explore once again its own revised limits.
It would certainly add to the richness of the spectacle. In the moment of execution Ronaldo's bullet leap may have had the air of something unanswerably primal, a rabbitman flexing his hind legs and wagging his knotty scalp. But it was, of course, a culmination of endless practice wedded to the gymnastic intelligence of that hard-won physique. It may or may not provide a staging point in the revival of the art. But it was a lovely moment. And, in a game unexpectedly laden with crosses, perhaps even inadvertent tribute from a favoured son to English football's own beleaguered folk arts. – © Guardian News & Media