The Search for Football’s Missing Link: The Evolution of Dribbling – Part 1

Note: This article is to be read in the voice of Sir David Attenborough. If you’re not as adept in mimicry as the cockatoo Cacatuidae, the plum-headed parakeet, or even the beluga whale, there’s always your imagination. If, by any stroke of luck, the dear reader happens to dabble in the occult, and would like the full Dolby Digital Surround SoundTM experience, he/she is welcome to the use of an Ouija board.

The Search for Football’s Missing Link: The Evolution of Dribbling – Part 1

There are some 4 million different varieties of footballers in the world, and about 4 million different solutions to the problem of staying relevant. This is a story of how one of them came to be… a story of surviving certain obscurity. Welcome to The Search for Football’s Missing Link.

Carl Orff’s O Fortuna playing underneath a sepia-toned montage: dribblers from 1940’s England 1) being kicked around like newborn pups by troll-sized men 2) queuing up in unemployment offices 3) busking on street corners 4) evading paparazzi in a drunken stupor 5) mutating into BBC Match of the Day pundits, a close-up showing  deadened eyes. Fade to black.

This is the greatest gash that exists on the surface of the earth. The distance from the rim of his eyebrows to the grass that sucks on his boots, is a vertical mile. There are numbers of trails down, but the usual way to make the trip is on the back of a mule. Like with canyons, with every 20 metres we descend, we go back a further million years. This not-so-gentle giant is the English defender, our apex predator.

The English defender operated on two core beliefs: one – that civilisation is 48 hours and two bad meals away from cannibalism. Two – that the only purpose books could ever serve him would be as a handy replacement for firewood when (not if) apocalypse arrives.

The kind of habitat he’s been familiar with is vanishing at an alarming rate since the 1990s. Up until that point, his bruteness had sustained the illusion of his fiefdom with all the ungraciousness of the-act-of-grievous-bodily-harm. His rudeness was merely an expression of fear though, which men, feral beasts and everything in between resort to when they are subjected to change. Or simply, when can’t get what they want. What the English defender was bereft of, was the ball. 

Dribblers are relatively recent arrivals on the British Isles. The English defender – like certain kinds of reptiles and amphibians of the Galapagos – thrived where conditions remained unchanged over immense periods of time, resembling very closely to their early ancestors.

Too much technique was sacrificed with the increase in pace and aggression in the years leading up to the two World Wars. Now, a new breed of post-war baby boomers was slinking past them, harvesting fruits, inheriting the earth with lesser exertion and more cunning.

The habitat in question is the majestic muddy mess that you see in front of you. This, the shoddily-drained soddy plains of 1960s British Isles which the inhabitants call ‘stadiums’. It is this shallow sea that football’s prophets must wade through, like the green basilisk lizard*, to escape threats to their living. It’s here where you’ll find in later years, Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo stomping their diversity against the forces of adversity/gravity.

Adaptations like the one of the green basilisk boggle the mind. And utterly boggled was a bearded Englishman. With his boat called Beagle, he arrived at the Amazons to get to the bottom of this. His name was Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin was a god-fearing man, who wrote god with a capital ‘G.’ The convention of the time was that each and every creature was created by God in a brilliant flash of a light fantastic called Octarine**.

The clue is in the etymology of the word ‘creature’. The Old French word that we utter today is a Late Latin root word ‘creare’, which literally translates to ‘something created.’

Darwin would spend three years in the overgrowths of South America, occasionally sipping hot cocoa, scribbling, growing an impressive beard which doubled-up as a mosquito-trap and recalibrating his spiritual compass to point to the only true north there is – science.

He found himself overwhelmed at the esoteric stock of evolution’s thrift shop – the Islands Galapagos.

Imagine yourself walking into a curio shop, your fingers grazing the shoulders of dresses as you walk by nonchalantly, expecting little if nothing, until suddenly you stop and gawp, and pull a dashing dress out by the hangar for closer inspection.

In this hypothetical situation, the human thing to do would be to burrow that dress into the remotest corner of the shop and go exploring again, and again, like a squirrel with too many acorns and too few tree burrows. That’s how he felt there.

Wherever eager Darwin went in the Galapagos, he stumbled upon creatures that bore a general resemblance, but, no, nearly all were slightly different than the other. Darwin could have saved himself from all of that tropical bother and bug spray if he was born a century-and-a-half later and just went to a footy game, where the scenes were just as vivid.

With the exception of the Staten Island Ferries transporting downtrodden Englishmen to the New World, ‘the stadium’ is perhaps the most vociferous and the diverse assemblage of British fauna.

There are about fifty different kinds of Britishers in any given crowd. Wherever you look you find a majestic mulligatawny of life and language, of a populace stewing and swaying to songs in a cauldron of noise. A complex multi-cultural broth.

Just as English accents in Yorkshire are many varied things, Darwin’d have noted. Like in Hull to the east, where they hoard Styennn Raises (Stone Roses) albums, Leeds to the west, where the ‘e’ is elongated till it hits someone in the ‘I’, and Barnsley to the south, where the harsh winds of open country heighten the risk of an innocent gnat being inhaled, forcing everyone to speak like Sir Geoffrey ‘that’s proper cricket, is that?’ Boycott.

With an eager eye he’d have noticed while the terraces were diverse tapestries of everyday-life, the private boxes were commissioned paintings of exclusivity. Tinkling of half-filled teacups in saucers, the dust of cake crumbs and glass tables riddled with bent cigarette butts – the scene would be an illegitimate offspring of a smoky Parisian cafe and a musty gambling den in Soho.

It is there on the pitch that Football’s Missing Link makes the man in the stand strangle his two-bob hat, as he makes the aristocrat hold velvet cushions to their bellies – commanding a crowded pause gilded with grace and an utterly assured anxiety.

The football field is a play of a Darwinian struggle where participants/savages wear shorts. Dribblers were easy game – like birds of paradise fluttering through dark forest clearings, leaving a delicate trail of traceries on mud, marks easily wiped by cold November rain.

Darwin called this process of elimination ‘natural selection.’

In this series, we will survey the evolution of the dribble, look at them not as isolated oddities but as pivots in a long play that began a thousand years ago and still gets calls for encores.

Football’s Missing Link was the last common ancestor of yesterday’s dribblers and today’s. His dribbles were not merely dribbles – they were expeditions into the unknown. His weaving, impudent imagination charted courses for generations to follow, fast-forwarding the evolution of dribbling.

Football’s missing link – like the humble woodmouse – survived because of a remarkable skill to adapt to any new environment, on it’s way to the future.

Next: Football’s Missing Link Revealed.

Footnotes: *A genus of large corytophanid lizards native to Mexico, Central America, and northern South America, the green basilisk, more commonly known as the Jesus Christ lizard, can, when threatened, drop from a tree into water, and sprint, upright, about 5 feet per second across the surface –  at an astonishing pace.
**Some people claim to catch glimpses of octarine in peacock feathers, lightning bolts, rainbows, lens flares, soap bubbles, bonfires, and cursed gemstones – a pinkish-purple hue, crackling and shimmering, the eighth colour of the spectrum.
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Srijandeep Das

Managing Editor, journalist, writer. On a mission to elevate Football Writing to an art form.