The back-heel: Footballing innovation or disrespect?

First, the UAE footballer Awana Diab, who scored with a back-heeled penalty against Lebanon, was [threatened with punishment]( for his creativity. Then, Manchester City’s Italian wild-child Mario Balotelli was hauled off by his manager Roberto Mancini for attempting a back-heeled finish when one-on-one against the goalkeeper. Diab was also substituted soon after his apparent crime.

This begs the question: is footballing innovation in danger of being classed as disrespect? Diab’s penalty was taken when the UAE were ahead by several goals. If anything, serious questions should be asked of the goalkeeper, who failed to react to a pretty poorly executed backheel, which lacked any pace or power. In fact, Roma legend Francesco Totti, [attempted a much better one](, albeit in training.

As for Balotelli’s finish, it’s clear that he would be lauded if he had pulled it off. Failure to execute the trick properly is his only crime, in my opinion. The context in which this back-heel was attempted is important to consider before we decide to berate the Italian and label him ‘troubled’. There are suggestions that the young striker felt he was offside, hence the nonchalant, unorthodox finish. It happened in a pre-season friendly against LA Galaxy, where the optimization of fitness is the most important thing, the result is completely irrelevant.

Amateur psychologists among us could even argue that Mancini felt pressure to act strongly in a public sphere against any critics, much like Phil Brown’s infamous half-time team-talk at Hull. For, it was he who brought Balotelli from Inter Milan last summer. It was under his management when Balotelli accumulated more cards than goals last season.

So by hauling off the youngster, and bringing on James Milner, a player devoid of any flair but always a hard worker, Mancini moved dangerously close to becoming the Italian catenaccio-worshipping managerial stereotype, rather than [the brilliant striker who used to scored goals through the very flair and innovation]( he punished his own player for exhibiting.

Surely the most enthralling aspect of sport in general is discovering new boundaries within the rules and thus increasing competitiveness (in this case through creativity and quick-thinking)? These recent incidents are perhaps the extremes that highlight a more stifling climate where the commercial pressures impact on moments of sporting genius.

The importance of winning or surviving relegation to remain solvent mean clubs are likely to bank on a solid, defensive style rather than an offensive, attacking one where moments of individual brilliance are more likely. Sure Birmingham and Blackpool adopted these respective strategies, and sure, both got relegated, but it seems far harder to cultivate a technical, possession-based style than it does a dour, defensive ‘hoofball’ game.

One of the best remembered moments in European football history is the winning penalty of the 1976 European Championships by Czech midfielder Antonín Panenka. In what was the final penalty of the shoot-out, Panenka stepped up to the stop and defied all convention. He chipped the penalty down the middle, as the German ’keeper Sepp Maier dived to his left. This penalty technique is now known as the Panenka penalty.

In contrast, Balotelli’s decision to select a back-heeled finish was in a complete no-pressure situation. It will surely be consigned to blooper reels of the future, and will be used by those who want to promote the narrative of ‘Angry Young Man’ as a stick to beat the young Italian with. But the important point is, Balotelli was also willing to take the risk, even though it was in a situation akin to training. Like Panenka, he undertook the decision to go for the risky option that would leave him to potential embarrassment.

Yes, he failed where the Czech player made the history books. There are countless examples of this but it is the willingness to take the risk that is important. Otherwise sport wouldn’t be any fun if it was only played by rational, ergonomic men on the flat plain in Christaller’s Central Place Theory (GCSE Geography anyone?).

Remember [Robert Pires and Thierry Henry](’s failed attempt at re-creating the short-pass penalty made famous by [Johan Cruyff and Jesper Olsen]( in 1982? In the [post-match reaction](, Sylvain Distain, like Mancini and Diab’s team manager Esmaeel Rashed, missed the point and cried disrespect. As Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger pointed out, the intention is rarely, if ever, disrespect, but adhering to the entertainment aspect of sport.

Mancini and Rashed should do well to remember that before they try to punish their players for creativity.


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