There is a certain mystique surrounding Two-Footed footballers, the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Eden Hazard, Cristiano Ronaldo, Pavel Nedved, Pedro, Wesley Sneijder just to name a few. These rare gifted players are in high demand, they tend to earn more wages and are commonly used as role models by coaches to spur on the next generation of elite to keep working on their non-preferred foot.
However, when you dig a little, the facts tell a different story.
This series of articles will attempt to unravel the mystery behind the two-footed player, delve into the nature v nurture debate, examine the statistics, probe the role of the brain in masking two-footedness, investigate the opinions of coaches and ultimately decide whether there is such a thing as a two-footed player!
Part 1: The concept of Two-Footedness (Ambidexterity) – Footballers v The Human Race
Let’s get the terminology out of the way first;
Ambidextrous – is the state of being equally adept in the use of both left and right appendages (e.g. two-footedness)
Laterality – refers to the preference of most humans for one side of their body over the other (e.g. left footed v right footed)
Laterality of the Human Population
To begin with, view the chart below illustrating the laterality of the general population.
So the first key fact regarding laterality, which of course is well known, is that the majority of people on earth are right handed (88%) and right footed (80%).
It is widely accepted that the comparative percentages for the laterality of football players tend to reflect the human population, therefore 80% of footballers are right footed and 20% are left footed.
Interestingly, only one in every hundred people are regarded as naturally ambidextrous, which would indicate that only 1% of footballers are two-footed.
Statistics on Two-Footedness
Note that if you search around for statistics on ambidextrous or two-footedness in football, it is clear that this is not a widely popular area of research, as the information is scarce.
However, there are two publications that quantify the number of two-footed players. The first is by Bryson et al., “The Returns to Scarce Talent: Footedness and Player Remuneration in European Soccer” (2009), stating that 18% of players are two-footed, suggesting that one in every six players is two footed.
The second paper, by Carey et al., “Footedness in world soccer: an analysis of France ’98” (2001) analysed players from the 1998 World Cup in France and concluded that very few two-footed players, if any, were found. This conclusion resembles ambidexterity within the human population, with less than 1% of players being two-footed.
It is interesting to note the large discrepancy in the numbers of two-footed players in the two papers above, with the Bryson research quoting 18% of players being two-footed and the Carey research basically not finding any, or less than 1%
Explaining the discrepancy between 1% and 18%
To explain this discrepancy, the answer lies in the definition, or more the lack of agreed definition, of two-footedness in football.
If you look at Carey, where the purpose of the research was to create and analyse raw data, they defined two-footedness as Equal use of both feet. They found less than 1%.
Bryson were very similar, defining two-footedness as Equally strong with both feet. However, they noted that 18% of players were two-footed.
If you look into the Bryson paper more closely though, a few things become apparent. Firstly the aim of the research was to evaluate the link between two-footedness and player wages, and rather than create their own data, which would not be practical, they sourced raw data on two-footedness from www.transfermarkt.de.
Secondly, whilst themselves defining two-footedness as ‘Equally strong with both feet’, perhaps acknowledging the potential for this data to be skewed, the following caveat was used when referring to the data collected from TransferMarkt.
Given the high number of players classified as two-footed (18%) at TransferMarkt, one could make the assumption that the “external experts” at TransferMarkt may not adhere to the same strict criteria of ‘Equally strong with both feet’ to categorise two-footedness. Rather, as noted in the caveat above, the classification is based on observation of matches, which could be subjective.
Need for a Definition
The intent of this article is not to scrutinise the definition of two-footedness. Indeed, when beginning to write this article, there was no plan to question the definition of two-footedness. After significant research into the topic, however, it became apparent that a standard or working definition is needed, particularly considering the likelihood of future research in the fields of youth development, talent identification, scouting, transfers, wages etc., where data on two-footedness might be important.
It is evident that a disparity exists between the pure definition of two-footedness, in which ‘Equal on both feet’ is a pre-requisite, and the practical use whereby a player may simply have to demonstrate a proficient use on their non-preferred, to be classified as two-footed.
As is stands, if ‘Equal on both feet’ remains a pre-requisite for two-footedness, then this would almost certainly see to the extinction of the two-footed player.
However, common sense should prevail, with an opportunity here for an academic or keen enthusiast to stake a claim in coining a new football specific definition or description of two-footedness.
For instance, two-footedness in football could be defined as –
Example 1 – removing “equal” and replacing with “having the capability”;
Example 2 – attempting to quantify;
Hopefully someone will take up the challenge.
Part 2 (coming soon) – The next article in this series on two-footedness looks at plasticity, and asks the question; “Is two-footedness simply genetics or can it be effectively developed with appropriate training.”