Don’t Knuckle Under to Soccer’s Appropriation of Term “Knuckleball”

Etymologically speaking, the use of the word “knuckleball” to designate the baseball pitch thrown by knuckleballers is fairly earned.

Yes, most knuckleballers in fact grip the leather of the baseball with their fingernails, not their knuckles—a not-so-marginal detail which, for the typical knuckleballer, means that the care and paring of nail plate keratin must constitute a critical element in preparation for play, a preoccupation almost unique among athletes.

Knuckleball with knucklesA few knuckleballers—like knuckleball-originator or co-originator Eddie “Knuckles” Cicotte (1884-1969)—have in fact deployed their knuckles to directly grip the ball. But even when the pitcher’s fingernails, not his knuckles, are contiguous to the leather, skillful gripping of the knuckleball requires a degree of phalangeal bending that is specific to the knuckleball grip. An ineluctable right-angularity continues to bring the knuckles to the fore, so to speak, even if they have somewhat receded from the front line. The switch from the pitch as it began to the pitch that it soon became was not so drastic as to preclude using the term “knuckleball” with a clear conscience. Retaining the term bespeaks nothing linguistically hazy, lazy or dissolute.

Compare the fairly earned status of the term “knuckleball” as used in sober discussion of baseball to the mal-appropriation of the term “knuckleball” (a.k.a. “knuckle shot”) as shanghaied in slack chatter about soccer.

A cardinal distinguishing feature of the knuckleball we know and love is the ball’s relatively low rotation. But can this mean that every low-spinning propelled orb is plausibly a “knuckleball” (or “knuckle shot”)?


Soccer Boot CleatsJust as there is no “knuckler” of a bowling ball and no “knuckler” of a boulder tumbling down a mountainside, so there is, properly, no “knuckler” of a soccer ball. For it is glaringly obvious that the knuckles are nowhere to be seen in the performing of the fabled “knuckle shot”! Such “knuckles” as the toes may even boast of are but peripherally engaged at best in any maneuver on the soccer field. They are, indeed, habitually sheathed and static; wrapped, bound. Even the most casual observer of the game must see that when players kick the soccer ball, their encased toes cannot and do not grip the sphere at all, whether via toe knuckle or toenail! (The soccer boot has cleats, not knuckles.) Whence cometh, then, the dismaying crypto-analogy to knuckle-based grips?

“We’ve all watched Cristiano Ronaldo fire his trademark free kick rockets into the back of the net, leaving soccer fanatics all of the world scraping their jaws off the floor,” says the redoubtable author of “How to shoot a knuckleball in soccer and shoot like Ronaldo.”

He and other free kick specialists generate these powerful and unpredictable shots using a technique known as the knuckle shot or instep drive. This method of striking a football is especially potent in long-range free kick scenarios. Here’s how you do it….

The strike: Hit the ball as hard as you can with your foot perpendicular to the ground. Make sure you make contact with the laces and inside part of your foot (as shown on picture two). To force the ball over the defensive wall and make it dip back down you will need to create topspin. This is achieved by lifting your striking foot upward when the ball is compressed upon impact.


At, we learn that

“Bend it like Beckham” has given way to “knuckle it like Ronaldo” in European football. During free kicks, players like Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Tottenham’s Gareth Bale put little or no spin on the ball, which tends to give it the unpredictable movement of a knuckleball in baseball.

Okay. That’s all fine, whether as instruction or as analysis. But not as labeling. Not as terminology. The maneuver that Wikipedia defines as a “freekick that has no spin and has erratic movement” should perhaps be called an “ankler” or a “super-instepper,” by no means a “knuckleball.”

Some fans of the game of soccer may dislike our proposed punting of the beloved if scandalous misnomer. We understand, but we must be firm. We are putting our foot down.

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