What is Nutmegging in Soccer? How Did it Get Its Name?

Michael Claunch

Soccer slang includes specific terms for numerous moves, and in some cases, the general public may not be familiar with them. For example, it’s not rare to hear in a broadcast that a player ‘just got nutmegged’ by an opponent. To fans who may not be aware of what is nutmegging in soccer and haven’t seen the action on the field, this could sound mysterious or even dangerous, but in reality, it’s just a simple dribbling technique that humiliates the defender a little bit.

In this article, we’ll try to explain what exactly nutmegging refers to, how often it occurs in a professional soccer game, and provide some info about the origin of the name.

What soccer move is called nutmegging?

Any instance when an offensive player in possession of the ball dribbles, shoots, or passes the ball between a defender’s legs can be accurately described as nutmegging. Since defenders are often in a stance with their legs positioned wide, and with their eyes fixed on the ball, this move is usually unexpected. It can create a tangible advantage if it’s executed correctly. When it’s done successfully, nutmegging allows the attacker to create an advantage, run past the defender, and perhaps even score or assist on a goal. The entire sequence also looks very visually attractive and usually draws a strong reaction from supporters in the stands.

It goes without saying that precision is required, since the space to get the ball through is narrow by definition, and a defender could easily deflect the ball if he reacts in time. For this reason, players who can consistently use this tactic without losing the ball are considered technically superior and widely respected for their creativity. However, a defending team might view an attempt at nutmegging as an insult and try to respond with tighter coverage or even a foul.

Nutmegging in soccer – the origin of the term

Even hardcore soccer fans who are familiar with the term can’t say with certainty why it’s called nutmegging. There are several possible explanations put forward, but it’s very hard to judge which one is historically correct. The term started appearing in the press in the late 70s and was popularized over the next several decades, and its original meaning has been lost in the process.

The most obvious explanation starts from the fact that a man’s private parts are often referred to as ‘nuts’, so nutmegging soccer origin might simply be an adaptation of this expression. An alternative etymology starts from the English rhyming slang, in which ‘nutmegs’ can be used to replace the word ‘legs’ with which it rhymes. Given the popularity of soccer in Britain and the fact that many slang terms originated there, this explanation could have some credibility. Another variation of the story refers to the actual practice of importing nutmegs from the US, which was a shady business where fraud was fairly common, so getting ‘nutmegged’ would mean getting fooled or tricked in some way. This version sounds a little far-fetched but can’t be discounted outright.

Whatever the true origin may be, today this term is used across much of the English-speaking world. It can often be heard from announcers and commentators on live television or seen on banners held by spectators. Some of the alternative terms for the same move include tunnel, brooksy, or salad, to name just a few.

Is nutmegging a legal and acceptable soccer strategy?

There is no soccer rule that would prevent dribbling or shooting the ball between an opponent’s legs. The move is completely legal for as long as the ball stays inbounds and there is no physical contact between the players. In fact, it can be tactically advantageous in many situations and sometimes could be the only viable way of advancing the ball in tight quarters.

Another question is how much this practice fits into the overall spirit of sportsmanship. A player that’s been a victim of a nutmegging effort is definitely exposed to ridicule, and his competence could be brought into question. This doesn’t matter for a professional soccer player who is paid to endure criticism about his play, but attempting nutmegging in a friendly match or when playing against clearly inferior defenders could be viewed as arrogant showboating.

Still, the crowd generally reacts very enthusiastically to well-done instances of nutmegging, providing an additional incentive (on top of tactical advantage) for highly skilled players to continue attempting it. That’s why it’s safe to conclude that nutmegs will remain a part of soccer long into the future.

Famous soccer players with a reputation for nutmegging opponents

“Lionel Messi festeja” by prismatico is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/?ref=openverse.

Since nutmegging requires perfect ball control and some dribbling flair, it is associated with some of the greatest players in each era. In particular, South American players are famous for including this bold move into their bag of tricks. Legendary Argentinian midfielder Diego Maradona was a keen practitioner of nutmegging in his time. At the same time, Brazilian star Ronaldo was equally famous for his tendency to get the ball through the legs of a helpless defender.

Current players Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez are among the most prolific users of the tactic, with Suarez in particular known to look for every chance to nutmeg an opponent. Of course, the move is not exclusive to star players and can be seen with regularity at all levels of soccer.

How to prevent nutmegging as a defender?

Attentive defenders can decrease the chances of getting nutmegged by adopting a proper stance and positioning their hips at the right angle. Too eager defenders who commit too early are highly vulnerable, so it makes sense to back down slightly in case a nutmeg is anticipated. However, this effectively yields free space to the attacker, so overreacting to a threat of nutmegging could end up being counterproductive. Backing down from star ball handlers is very dangerous, which is why a good defender will concede an occasional nutmeg and ignore the infamy that goes with it rather than allow the opposing playmaker the freedom to move the ball unimpeded.

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