Johann Cruyff, the entire nation of Scotland, and Stalin's chief of Soviet security all play the role of victim
Footballer. Genius. Playboy. Lover. George Best was called many things in his colourful career, but linguistic pioneer wasn't one of them. However according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first documented reference of the word nutmeg in a football context is from, of all things, Michael Parkinson's biography of Best from 1975. "I love taking the piss out of players too," explains Best to Parky. "Like 'nutmegging them'. That's sticking it between their legs and running round them."
Of course the word itself was around before that, and Peter Seddon's book Football Talk, the Language And Folklore Of The World's Greatest Game, makes a reasonable case that it comes from duplicitous practice in the nutmeg trade. Indeed the OED lists the verb as "arising in the 1870s which in Victorian slang came to mean 'to be tricked or deceived, especially in a manner which makes the victim look foolish".
A year later that's exactly what Best did to perhaps the best player in the world at the time, Johann Cruyff. As Bill Elliot, from this parish, remembered in 2005:
"In 1976, Northern Ireland were drawn against Holland in Rotterdam as one of their group qualifying matches for the World Cup," wrote Bill. "As it happened I sat beside George on the way to the stadium that evening. Holland - midway between successive World Cup final appearances - and Cruyff were at their peak at the time. George wasn't. I asked him what he thought of the acknowledged world No1 and he said he thought the Dutchman was outstanding. 'Better than you?' I asked. George looked at me and laughed. 'You're kidding aren't you? I tell you what I'll do tonight... I'll nutmeg Cruyff first chance I get.' And we both laughed at the thought.
"... Five minutes into the game he received the ball wide on the left. Instead of heading towards goal he turned directly infield, weaved his way past at least three Dutchmen and found his way to Cruyff who was wide right. He took the ball to his opponent, dipped a shoulder twice and slipped it between Cruyff's feet. As he ran round to collect it and run on he raised his right fist into the air.
"Only a few of us in the press box knew what this bravado act really meant. Johan Cruyff the best in the world? Are you kidding? Only an idiot would have thought that on this evening."
Unfortunately the camera wasn't always around to record a cheeky Best move, on or off the field. And this, sadly, was another exception. Sean Ingle
Dennis Bergkamp once said that the easiest way to beat a goalkeeper was to scoop the ball over him, on the basis there was more space above him than to the side. It was the easiest way for Dennis Bergkamp anyway. Lesser strikers do not necessarily have the requisite skill to chip the keeper, let alone the imagination. Bergkamp's argument certainly makes sense, but it is not an absolute. There are other ways and while it is not as eye-catching as the chip, a forward who has the wherewithal to score with a nutmeg deserves just as much credit for his finishing prowess. After all, goalkeepers are told to make themselves bigger and spread themselves in one-on-ones. More often than not, it works. But sometimes the coaching manual betrays them.
Take Peter Schmeichel. He was a master at intimidating forwards when they were through on goal, spreading himself like a peacock showing off its feathers. When Manchester United beat Newcastle March 1996, Schmeichel's heroics helped them survive an early onslaught, the Dane twice denying Les Ferdinand. On the first occasion, he smothered as Ferdinand went through and then stuck out a giant left hand when the striker tried to beat him at his near post; if Ferdinand could have his time again, he might well say he should have tried a nutmeg.
After all, what was good enough for Romario 18 months earlier would have been good enough for Ferdinand. United were leading Barcelona 1-0 in a Champions League group match in 1994 when Romario was sent clear of the home defence. Schmeichel came flying out in his trademark intimidatory pose, arms outstretched and his legs wide, but he was up against a wilier opponent than usual. Without taking a touch Romario, who had scored five goals for Brazil at that summer's World Cup, whipped a sharp shot through Schmeichel's legs to equalise.
Romario's was a supreme finish. Others can look more mundane, a case of mere hit-and-hope. Certainly there appears to be little special about the way Lionel Messi scored his fourth goal against Arsenal two years ago, a firm effort drilled through Manuel Almunia's legs. But it happens too often for it to be a coincidence. He did it against Atlético Madrid last season, beating Thibaut Courtois to complete his hat-trick.
Of course, it is not only goalkeepers who are susceptible to this sort of humilation; defenders are as well. Earlier in that match, Messi got his second goal when he fired through a defender's legs, giving an unsighted Courtois no chance to react in time. It's a sneaky, underhand way to score but defenders, used and abused by strikers, fall for it time and time again, such as when Stephane Henchoz allowed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to guide the ball through his legs and into the far corner in March 2000.
But it's mostly goalkeepers. As Rob Smyth wrote in this Joy of Six on one-on-ones, "It is not enough to score a goal; they must humiliate the goalkeeper too. In essence, it's a masculinity-waving contest," and arguably no one has stuck two fingers up to the goalkeepers' union more contemptuously than Claudio López in a World Cup quarter-final between Holland and Argentina in 1998. This was one of the most gloriously dismissive finishes of all time.
At first, after being sent through by Juan Sebastian Veron, it seems that López didn't know what to do, producing an array of feints and stepovers in a bid to throw Edwin van der Sar off the scent. It could have backfired spectacularly if Van der Sar had just stood his ground, but this was a battle of nerve, a test of wits, and Lopez came out on top.
Finally Van der Sar cracked and fell to the floor, which was precisely what López wanted. Van der Sar was totally at his mercy, but the indignity didn't end there. López could have chipped him or rounded him. Nah. Too much effort. Instead, as Van der Sar's face turned the same colour as Holland's shirts, Lopez casually nutmegged him. Sadly for López, his moment of impudent glory was ultimately upstaged by Bergkamp. But Van der Sar probably hasn't forgotten. Jacob Steinberg
Across most of the rest of the world, a nutmeg is a panna. Which leads us nicely into this creamy, dreamy, move from Juan Román Riquelme. Look at it! Look! A 360-la-roulette spin followed by a backheeled nutmeg! If was from a PlayStation game people slate it for being unrealistic. No wonder an embarrassed defender soon sent Riquelme tumbling.
The German writer Ronald Reng talked of Riquelme as "the most curious footballer in the world – his movements are the embodiment of slowness, but hardly anyone can get the ball away from him because he thinks faster than most – played with the upright back and raised head of a midfield majesty, right at the centre of things." Not on this occasion. This was young Riquelme, fast of foot as well as thought, painting pictures none of us had ever seen before. Sean Ingle
* Unfortunately we don't know which player or team this was against, nor when it was. Feel free to let us know below the line
Scotland took 32 years to reach their first finals at the European Nations Cup, and when they got there, they must have wondered whether it was worth the wait. They were drawn, as was their way at major tournaments during the 1980s and 1990s, in a group of death. This one was particularly fatal: the reigning world champions Germany, the reigning European champions Holland, and the ever-dangerous Soviets, now - for one championship only!!! - rebranded as the CIS.
Andy Roxburgh's side had no luck whatsoever. The Dutch were fully expected to ride roughshod over Scotland - their team contained some of the all-time talents in Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Ronald Koeman, Frank Rijkaard and Dennis Bergkamp - but they took 77 minutes to score the only goal in a victory over opponents who were, according to this rag, "admirably composed and disciplined". The Germans were up next, and were thrashed by minus two goals to nil. A superhuman Bodo Illgner denied 12 Scottish chances - the corner count was 14-2 in favour of the Scots - while Stefan Effenberg fluked a Konchesky of a cross to hammer the Caledonian coffin closed. A subsequent 3-0 walloping of the much-fancied CIS only served to heighten the unjust pain of it all.
The Euros owed Scotland some karmic payback four years later, but Lady Luck kept her chequebook in her purse and had deliberately left her guarantee card at home. As they did at Euro 92, Scotland erected a brick wall against the Dutch, but this time it stood firm. Hosts England were the second test, and a draw was the least Scotland deserved for a superlative second-half showing. But there's no accounting for a ball that eerily moves before a penalty's taken - pity poor Gary McAllister - or for the supernatural brilliance of Paul Gascoigne, who ghosted past the sheet-white Colin Hendry for that goal. Scotland's final 1-0 win over Switzerland was academic, but only just. England somehow opened the door for Scotland with a four-goal blitz against Holland, arguably their best performance at Wembley in their entire history. Worlds colliding, it would have given their auld enemy passage into the second round of a major tournament for the first time ever. The walloping slice of luck the European Championships owed the Scots.
And then, with 12 minutes to go, Patrick Kluivert latched on to Bergkamp's gorgeous layoff and slid a slow-motion poke through David Seaman's legs. It meant little to England - and at the time, little to the Dutch fans as well. But it would mean everything to the Scots. "The orange masses managed only a murmur of approval," noted David Lacey in this paper. "Not until the result from Villa Park was confirmed [Scotland's insubstantial victory over the Swiss, ensuring the Dutch pipped them on goal difference] did they manage a cheer."
So Scotland's wait for a place in the second stage of a major finals went on: 66 years then, 82 now. Painful, but perhaps a blessing in disguise. The best explanation as to why was given by the magnificent former Guardian and Observer writer Patrick Barclay, who hit the nail squarely on the head in an edition of the late-90s football anthology Perfect Pitch: "That they would owe it to England was unthinkable ... I did not care to be patronised for the rest of my life. There was a taste of what might have been when, at a party in London that night, well-meaning fields broke off from singing about the damned lions on their sodding shirts to tell me they were sorry Scotland had gone out. I said it was all right. Honestly." Scott Murray
No, we haven't made a mistake. No, the names aren't the wrong way round. Yes, John O'Shea did once nutmeg Luis Figo. Yes, it's probably for the best if you have a quick lie down now.
What makes this effort so glorious is how absurd it seems now. The nutmeg is supposed to be the ultimate expression of superiority, an unanswerable putdown, a private members' club closed to lumbering defenders. Figo is supposed to nutmeg O'Shea. The nutmegger is not supposed to be the nutmeggee. Ballon d'Or winners who cost Real Madrid £37m are supposed to be immune to this sort of thing.
It is not that it should never happen, it's just that there's a time and a place. I still remember the glee on Match of the Day when Gianfranco Zola was nutmegged by Juninho during a match between Middlesbrough and Chelsea in 1999, but that's because nutmegger-on-nutmegger action – like Roger Federer beating Novak Djokovic with a 'tweener – is to be expected now and again. Anything else just disrupts the natural order of things.
Just by tapping the ball through his legs, O'Shea momentarily stripped Figo of his aura and brought him back down to earth. Not necessarily down to his level, though, because at the time a young O'Shea was developing a reputation – albeit one that wouldn't last long – as an exciting attacking full-back for Manchester United. So at least Figo had an excuse. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of another Portuguese winger, Cristiano Ronaldo, brilliantly nutmegged by journeyman full-back Scott Hiley in an FA Cup tie between Exeter City and United in 2005. Some people just don't know their place. Jacob Steinberg
We finish with a nutmeg that may not actually have happened, but like the tale of the fellow who popped a cap in Liberty Valance, the legend has become fact, so we're printing the legend.
In a lower-league match in Georgia during the 1920s, a talented young player called Nikolai Starostin ran rings around his opponent, delivering the final humiliation by slipping the ball between his legs and racing off cackling in glee. All good knockabout fun, except the klutz Starostin had bested would grow up to be a very dangerous man indeed: Lavrenty Beria, chief of Soviet security under Joseph Stalin.
Starostin would also move on up: along with his three brothers, he became involved with the left-wing footballing arm of the Moscow Sport Circle and the food-workers' union, eventually renaming the outfit Spartak Moscow. Starostin's Spartak became the club of the people, and developed a local rivalry with Dinamo Moscow who were - and here it begins - run and supported by Beria's secret police.
Spartak were successful from the get-go, winning both Russian league and cup within two years of their rebranding, but their success fuelled Beria's jealously. And when, in 1939, Spartak again won the title, then defeated Beria's personal favourites Dinamo Tbilisi in the cup final, Starostin's story was being mapped out independently of his own personal actions and wishes.
On 20 March 1942, Starostin awoke to find a goon pressing a pistol against his noggin, and was frogmarched to the Lubyanka, aka Beria HQ, where he was accused of trying to whack Stalin. The evidence was flimsy in the extreme. Beria had provided the interrogators with a photo of Starostin and his Spartak side within a few metres of the Soviet supremo while playing an exhibition match in Moscow's Red Square in 1936. Dinamo Moscow had also been due to compete that day, but pulled out for fear of splatting Stalin in his moustachioed coupon with the ball. Spartak played against their own reserve team instead, and much to Beria's annoyance, put on quite a show for the cheery despot.
But the evidence, preposterous as it was, put Starostin in the jug. He - and his brothers - were sent to Siberia for a ten-year stretch. But the guards were kind to Starostin. "Beria was not dealing with just four men," he later recalled in his autobiography, "but the hopes of millions of ordinary Soviet people. People saw us embodying Spartak."
Once Stalin carked it, Starostin was released and returned to Russia a national hero. He spent time as USSR coach, then later rejoined Spartak as their president until 1992. Beria, on the other hand, was tried for war crimes and shot dead. Scott Murray