Being nutmegged is summary emasculation. No question. Soon as it goes through, you’re done. Prone. Out of the picture. The ball, and your bollocks, gone.
Time to go full sprint into late-night Wikipedia-philosophy-session-nobhead mode and put a fiver on the frequency of nutmeg-related embarrassment being linked to Freud’s theory of castration anxiety. Or it at least being linked to something vaguely like what that sounds like that’s about.
Even the term itself feels like a not-so-subtle allusion to a good old fashioned de-bollocking.
One time when I was sixteen, I instinctively nutmegged an adult striker while training with Romford F.C. reserves (if you’d like my autograph, please wait until the end). And then I said it: Nuts. It was just a quiet-ish one, a regular room-convo-volume one. Not a screamer in the face of a crying child. It was instinctive and unmistakable: Nuts. Like, No biggie, mate— just done you up like a kipper. Suffice it to say, the next time I went up for a header he crashed into me with his forearm and left me a dizzy mess on the turf. “Cunt,” he said to me, a possibly concussed child, as he jogged away.
I was not invited to train with them again.
Now, imagine it happening in front of millions and millions and millions of people. All your employers, past and present. Girlfriends won and lost. Your children. The most public flagellation you can think of…
So let’s explore this through seven modern nutmegs that define the very notion of one footballer mugging off another.
Johan Djourou v Anonymous Reading Player
The Nutmeg: Floundering in the left back position, the Reading player closes Djourou down quickly. Wenger nervously fiddles with his zip, feeling a twinge in his stomach that could be the rumblings of cramp or something far more ominous…
Time slows. John Woo is directing. The crowd is silent. Maybe a single dove floats by. The Arsenal defender’s heartbeat drops to a point where he might be clinically dead. He squares up his man. He shimmies. He pops the ball through his legs. It’s beautiful.
The Context: Johan Djourou is the kind of player who always looks like he’s forgotten his boots and has just had to ask a ball boy for his; and when the picked up the ball deep in Arsenal’s defensive third, Wenger’s heart must’ve sank.
(Also, I want to say the Reading player’s name was something like John Halls, but who knows? Something real generic. A name that barely registers on the consciousness, even with people who sat in the Madejski in years 2006 through 2010 would have no idea. I just looked him up—two games for Reading. John Halls. No idea if that’s actually him, but let’s just say it is. Feels about right. Nobody will care enough to actually try and correct me.)
The Aftermath: On second watch, the commentators are laughing. Something’s wrong. They’re laughing at the Reading man more than is professional—they just can’t stop themselves. They’re laughing as if to say, “Did you see this dickhead?”
And then you do see it. Djourou in blind panic, swinging his left like a drunken lumberjack hacking at the base of an arrogant poplar, smashing the ball against Hall’s standing leg, the precise angle of impact sending it sweetly between the split trunk of the Unknown Footballer’s lower limbs.
It’s an unmitigated disaster for the nutmegee. A humiliation. And even more so because it was the sleepy-eyed, walking-punchline wot did it. John Halls (no idea) should’ve just handed in his PFA card then and there.
But what if it wasn’t just a happy accident? It’s worth remembering that Johan Djourou is paid to be good at football. He is without a doubt the best footballer any of his friends and family has ever known, and the things he would to any of us on a pitch are beyond comprehension really. And as long as the result is a success, can we truly doubt anything a professional athlete does is a mistake? And nutmegs always seem to work like that: the visual stimulus of the move is such that it doesn’t matter how it gets through there—it only matters that it does.
Maybe for young Johan—like the Keyser Soze of third-choice Premier League centre halves—things went exactly as he intended them.
Lionel Messi v James Milner
The Nutmeg: It’s the Champions League and Barcelona are outplaying Man City and someone passes the ball to Messi, twenty yards inside his own half, out by the touchline. James Milner, a man with a neck somehow thicker than his own head, comes flying at the Argentine hoping that his dogged spirit alone will be enough to raise what has been a sorry team performance. It is not enough. Messi sidesteps, calmly passes the ball through Milner’s legs, and leaves the Yorkshireman on the floor.
The Context: I don’t agree with all of the Boring James Milner shite—have you ever heard most football players speak in interviews? They sound like a prepubescent boy who’s just been made to stand up and read a poem by Carol-Ann Duffy out loud for the class—and I think he deserves better.
But nobody deserves the ice-cold bodying he received on 18th March 2015 at the hands of Lionel Messi, greatest player of all time. Messi’s stutter to his right, barely a full step, before caressing it, perfectly, to the left and away from his man. It’s happened a million times, but never better than here.
The Aftermath: Fuck, man. The director’s jump cuts to assorted fans and ex-pros laughing at the fallen Milner. Guardiola and his cronies giggling like jackals. Thousands of Vines blooming within seconds of the event. James Milner’s arse had barely touched the turf before websites began compiling them in articles called “Milner’s Nutmeg Shame Summed Up By These Hilarious Tweets” and “Milner Is Dead—Dead By Nutmegs”.
The most harrowing moment was when Milner moved from his arse to his knees and just stared into the turf like a man trying to find answers in the manicured grass. Real PTSD shit.
All this happened in a split second—so much weight, so much pathos, the career of James Milner reduced to rubble in one sidestep—and who knows if he’ll ever really get over it.
Thierry Henry v Danny Mills
The Nutmeg: It’s 2004. Thierry Henry runs after a Jens Lehman punt that Middlesbrough’s Danny Mills is looking to shepherd out of play. Only he’s misjudged it. Henry is much faster than Mills and rounds him, nicking the ball maybe four inches from the corner flag and—while using the pole for balance—drags back and knocks the ball through Danny Mills’ pale little legs.
The Context: You’d be as hard pushed to find anyone with nice things to say about Danny Mills—19 caps for England, sentient bread roll—as you would to find anyone to sincerely bad-mouth Henry—174 league goals, very kind eyes.
The Aftermath: Sometimes nutmegs serve a wider narrative. Sometimes they can sum up everything about a player.
“Mills was made to look rather daft,” came the chilling, elliptical appraisal of the situation by the commentator.
A nutmegee’s reaction can really make things so much worse. And Danny Mills, hands on hips, choosing to stare down a bored looking linesman as Henry sauntered away with the ball, only made the laughter ring out louder.
Ronaldinho v Gennaro Gattuso
The Nutmeg: Ronaldinho moves past Gattuso, cuts back, nutmegs Gattuso, runs off. Gattuso—being Gattuso—runs after him like something from Manhunt but cannot get close. It’s sad.
The Context: Ah, man. For this feature you could’ve taken your pick of the best Ronaldinho nutmegs. When I was a kid I downloaded my first porno—possibly the most millennial sentence anyone has ever written—and, to stop anyone from noticing the threesome film recently cadged from Limewire, it was renamed “ronaldino best skills” and it could not have been more spot on.
There was indeed always something vaguely pornographic about the way R10—also a notorious poon hound—went about his ‘megging. The definition of pornography—“something considered obscene, indecent, improper, indelicate, crude, lewd”—is a hat that fits pretty well. Just ask the people who played against him. There seemed a special playground impudence about his skills. He wanted to beat you, yeah, but he’d quite like to beat you four times, put the ball through your legs twice, a little Rivelino elastic on the way in, little Cruyff-fake on the way out. It wasn’t spiteful; you just got the sense that if Ronnie was allowed to get his cock out and shake it at you as he dicked you he definitely would have.
The Aftermath: Not really sure, but you’d imagine it’d involve Gennaro Gattuso, stripped and screaming, beating his chest outside the Barcelona dressing room, rosary beads in his mouth, the blood of several sacrificed youth players all over his hands, for five minutes. Ronaldinho would come out doing the little hang-loose shaka sign he does, smiling like a loon, and do a few around-the-worlds until Gattuso drops to his knees and begs forgiveness. It’d all be very Joga Bonito meets Bad Lieutenant.
Cristiano Ronaldo v Stephen Davis
The Nutmeg: Ronaldo is dancing around in the middle of the pitch; as Ronaldo often does. Davis is scrapping around him like a little doggie; same. Ronaldo turns once and then Cruyff turns, and then, with Davis squared up, spooked, like that split second in Metal Gear Solid when guards are frozen stiff after being alerted, a giant exclamation mark above their head, a siren going off inside their mind, and Ronaldo rolled it backwards through his legs, the football equivalent of sneaking up behind an aforementioned spooked guard and snapping his twig neck. It was badass.
The Context: This nutmeg was especially interesting because Cristiano Ronaldo, for all his skill and trickery, is not much of a nutmeg player. He’s a man who uses tricks to soften your attributes before he fires all his up in one go like in The Fast & The Furious when the NOS canisters kick in.
By the time you’ve gone “Oh, he’s just flipping his legs around over the ball. This is pretty simple, actually” he’s already twenty yards away from you, he’s already scored, and he’s like, fully erect and pointing at his own thighs shouting “RONALDO’S THIGHS!” at the crowd. Every time he deigns to actually nutmeg a player, you get the feeling that he is singling them out for special treatment. You kinda know he could do this to anyone at any time and the fact that he has deigned to do this to this particular person smacks of Jake LaMotta giving some extra leather to the splitting face of that young contender he comes up against in Raging Bull. “He ain’t pretty no more,” they say. “He ain’t got no bollocks no more.”
The Aftermath: Ronaldo went on to play terribly and still drag his country to their first trophy, whereas Davis’ neutering buoyed his career— he shrugged off the hindrance of the weight of his nutsacking and had a great season with Southampton. The nutmeg gods must’ve been smiling down on him.
Luis Suárez v David Luiz
The Nutmeg: Suárez cuts in from the right wing and puts it through a rushing Luiz’s legs, collects, beats two more men, and scores. It’s bad. It’s real bad.
The Context: When it happened, I know exactly what you were thinking:
“Haha Suárez made the curly-haired man look silly! Silly man! The man with the curly hair who proudly flaunts his ability and personality in a sport too often blunted by the eroding banality of professionalism, where players are continually shunned for showing individualism and only robots survive, was beaten so easily! And then the striker went on to score a goal! Right into the net!”
But also, remember:
This is Luis Suárez. In full flight. “Luis Suárez could nutmeg a mermaid”. Luis Suárez, more so than any other player, is someone with an incredibly difficult-to-judge running style. Messi is the greatest dribbler of all time, of course, but you kinda know where he’s going to go—you just can’t do anything about it. Suárez, though, is eternally on the edge of falling over. As a defender, you must constantly feel like you have him. Each Suárez touch is surely an olive branch to you—only it turns out to be all wood and no fruit. Now it’s too late. You’re off balance and that olive branch is now a switch that he beats you with. The ball pops through your legs and he’s away. And then look how sweetly he rounds a stiff Thiago Silva—probably the best defender of his generation—and finishes everything with a shunted toe into the corner of Paris Saint Germain’s net, a net that’s just on its knees now, licking its lips, begging for him to finish.
David Luiz didn’t even do much wrong. He quickly closed an advancing opponent on the half-turn, showing him down the line like he was taught as a kid, and he still ended up with egg on his face. The gap through which Suárez slips that ball is both very narrow and at an angle, and at speed… and at the end of a long run—each variable here clashing into the next and piling on the difficulty multipliers, playing the game like a ADHD teen doing a Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3 speed-run. How–really–did Suárez–when you think about it–actually do that?
The Aftermath: For Luiz, in that moment, the des Princes floodlights melting down on him, his hair softly billowing on the wave of noise from the crowd, Suárez must have been just a sweet memory:
Remember when you nearly tackled Luis Suárez? Remember what he did to you? Use that pain. Use. That. Mother. Fucking. Luis. Suárez. Related. Pain.
Luis Suárez v David Luiz II
The Nutmeg: The ball breaks free from the Barcelona midfield. It’s a 50–50 sprint between Luis Suárez and David Luiz. Suárez wins. His first touch puts the ball through his opponent’s legs, through to an open goal. He curls one in past the keeper. Luiz looks on, dejected. It’s all over.
The Context: Destruction. Has there ever been a light shone so brightly onto faults of a player, melting them under the beam like a bastard kid and his magnifying glass burning the legs off spiders? This was the match-ending nutmeg, the career ending nutmeg. The nutmeg to end all nutmegs.
What did David Luiz have left, just a summer removed from a 7–1 drubbing in the World Cup semifinal? Left to shoulder the majority of the blame for a historically abysmal defeat in a country that handles defeat poorly at the best of times is enough to give anyone a case of the Maybe I Should Retire-s. And now this. Now there’s less than zero. It was the kind of nutmeg that doesn’t even make you laugh—you were just stunned. It was Tyler Durden beating that pretty angel to a gazpacho-y pulp. It was that kid in The Simpsons wincing “Stop! Stop! He’s already dead…” In boxing it would be the kind of knockout where your trainer—grizzled and wise—takes you to the side as the doctors shine a light in your eyes, as your wife and children cry in the adjacent room, and asks you: “David… Are you sure you want to do this anymore? You’re still young. You’ve still got your health. You could be done with this two-bit game. What are you doing here, David? You need to leave this all behind you.” You look emptily at him. You’re empty. Your eyes glaze over. You stare at the bare bulb swinging from the grey plaster ceiling. This defeat was so bad you might actually listen to him…
The Aftermath: You ever seen something die in front of you? A pet, a loved one, a lightbulb. The way life just ebbs out of it. That’s David Luiz.
Has anyone ever looked more beaten? It not only ended David Luiz as one of the world’s top defenders (for a while, anyway), it ended the very notion of a player like David Luiz. When he returned to Chelsea, he was a different player. A shell of his former self: more focussed and reliable, sure, but without the erratic, genius that got him here in the first place. That kind of centre half has gone the way of the three-quarter back. It’s done. Never again will people yearn for centre backs who do stepovers—it’s just not worth the pain. How can you put someone else through this? David Luiz died so that others could live. Maybe out there, in Brazil, in Italy, in Spain, there’s a young striker with a touch of gold whose size has seen him pushed towards a more defensive role.
“But… But jefe,” he says. “I cannot.” Why not? “It is because…” and this young brute looks up at his manager, a man with a coarse, Med air-dried salt and pepper beard, and the solemn eyes of a barroom baritone. “Do you remember David Luiz?”