The elastico, or flip flap, is the property of Roberto Rivelino: that’s how the old story goes. That mustachioed Corinthians and Fluminense trickster—star of three World Cups for Brazil—is lauded as its flair-filled inventor; he was a player who loved (perhaps even lived) to tease and torment defenders, first with a tentative, deft little leftward flick, and then next with the obligatory darting switch back inside. It was a move full of purpose, and one that almost invariably resulted in the beating of a man, the setting up of a teammate, or the rifled shot at goal. Sometimes, just sometimes, he would even score.
This is surely the most Brazilian of all tricks. Its practitioners are all of a particular breed: Rivelino the creator, Ronaldo the executioner, and Ronaldinho the undisputed master. It is a veritable holy trinity: the ‘three R’s’ with a throwback Rivaldo Replacement. After all, it’s only Brazilians, so we think, who have it in them to make that snake-like move: ball and foot inseparable, slithering from one side to the other with just the swish of a boot and the drop of a shoulder.
But the elastico has in fact rather different origins. For it is not the great Rivelino we have to thank, but rather one Japanese-Brazilian youth team associate of his, with a little later help from one Algerian forward of the 1980s.
How’s that for flip-flapping convention, for confounding expectation? The elastico belongs not to Rivelino at all, nor even, one might say, to Brazil.
No, instead thank Sergio Echigo. Born in São Paulo to Japanese parents around a month before the end of the Second World War, Echigo excelled as a footballer in his youth. A right-sided player known for his quick feet, explosive pace, and skillful dribbling, he joined Corinthians whilst still a teenager in 1963. That first season he spent in the club’s youth team, impressing enough to gain promotion to the full squad a year later. Still only 19 years old, Echigo made nearly a dozen appearances for Corinthians in the 1963-4 championship.
An unspectacular career in Brazil, however, was to follow; it was not until a move to his parents’ native Japan that he again impressed, blazing a trail for Towa and becoming one of the country’s best players, earning consecutive selections in the Japanese Team of the Season. He retired in 1974 and pursued a career in coaching. Nowadays, Echigo is a respected commentator and pundit in Japan.
Perhaps Echigo’s greatest legacy, however, lies in that which he bestowed unto his one-time teammate, Rivelino. Both men are the same age, both were sons of immigrants (the latter’s parents were Italian), both played for Corinthians at the same time, and both were masters of a new-fangled skill, the likes of which had never been seen before. This was the elastico, or flip flap. And though Rivelino was a million times the better footballer, Echigo had at least hit on the trick first. Rivelino explains:
I learned the move from a player called Sergio Echigo, who played with me in the Corinthians youth team in ‘64. He invented that trick. I saw him do it once and I said, ‘Hey, Japanese, what’s that trick?’ He said, ‘It’s easy Rive, I’ll teach you it,’ and he says now that he invented it, but I perfected it.
It became Rive’s signature move. When starting on the left for Brazil in the 1970 World Cup (not his usual position—coach Mário Zagallo improvised to work him into an irrepressible front four with Jairzinho, Pelé, and Tostão), he would dazzle opposition defenders with it. Even in the final, that famous rout of Italy, Rivelino managed a perfectly executed flip flap: he moved one way, then the other, and watched the ball duly zip through the defender’s legs. His hop round to collect it on the other side was some way to crown such a superb triumph.
Domestically, too, defenders would fall foul of that plagiarised wonder-move. Yes, Rivelino’s trademark indeed: so much so that he is now widely credited as its inventor. Pelé, for one, said that it ‘was something [Rivelino] created… [and] a trick that only Rivelino could do.’ (As an aside, Rive once told an interviewer that ‘[even] Pelé couldn’t do that trick,’ joking that ‘he wasn’t skillful enough!’) Poor Sergio Echigo, then, remains long forgotten.
As does his flip-flapping, elastico-loving successor, the Algerian Salah Assad. Assad was adept either as a winger or a centre forward, playing in two World Cups for his country—Spain ‘82 and Mexico ’86—and becoming Algeria’s leading scorer in that most prestigious of tournaments. This offered Assad a way out of his politically volatile homeland, his stellar performances leading to interest from European clubs AS Saint-Étienne, Eintracht Frankfurt, Hamburg, Coventry City, Manchester City, PSG, and others.
He eventually joined up with French side FC Mulhouse, scoring freely in his debut season before being snapped up by PSG for the start of the 1983 campaign. Unfortunately, Assad struggled with injuries, never really making his mark at the club. A return to Mulhouse followed, after which Algeria beckoned once more. He would later spend four years in prison for alleged sympathies with the Front Islamique de Salud movement, highlighting once more how fraught with danger Algeria then was. For Assad’s part, he claimed that he ‘was never charged, never believed in violence, but simply practised my religion.’
On the football pitch, however, Assad was the heir to Echigo. For though talented, it was one talent in particular that garnered attention: again, the flip flap, or el ghoraf to Algerians. Like those aforementioned, the move was his signature. He would use it incredibly often: such was the frequency, he said, that he just couldn’t remember which ghoraf was his best.
He also claimed not to have imitated Rivelino (nor anyone else for that matter) but to have stumbled upon the trick himself, practising as a five year old with bottles, stones, and whatever else lay on the floor in front of him. His technique differed from Rivelino’s in that, to quote Assad, the Brazilian would perform the flip flap ‘on the spot’—i.e. standing still or near still—whereas he could perform it whilst at full speed—and often did.
Look to the present, though, and we see that Assad and Echigo have barely registered. We see YouTube tutorials promising to teach youngsters the ‘perfect’ flip flap—y’know, just like Cristiano. We see the skill with which the ‘original’ Ronaldo, Il Fenomeno, practised the trick, whether bamboozling Alessandro Nesta with it in the 1998 UEFA Cup Final, or using it to take out two Rayo Vallecano players whilst at Real Madrid. And we see Ronaldinho, the man we think of as the greatest ‘flip-flapper’ of them all, executing the move with such speed as to dizzy defenders time and time again.
In short, the elastico is a skill that has entered the footballing consciousness. We are sure of its inventor and even surer of its modern-day masters. But this is to forget Algerian Salah Assad, whose ghoraf may in fact be closer to the famous flip flap of Ronaldo and Ronaldinho than even Rivelino’s. And it is to forget the true inventor, Sergio Echigo: the journeyman Japanese-Brazilian with whom Rivelino played youth football.
In football, as in life, all is not as it seems.
Follow Kieran on Twitter @alglorb.