The 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil is underway, so it may be a good opportunity to relate soccer and our favorite game of chess. Today let us explore the question of what is making a soccer superstar. We will be glad to find out, one of the components of success is what great chess players do masterly all the time.

Take Ronaldo to see what makes him one of the best players of his generation. There is a documentary now, Ronaldo – Tested to the Limit, that breaks down and analyzes, under laboratory conditions, the elements that contribute to his superb performance. His skills, strength, agility and mental toughness are all looked at. But we are interested in his mental abilities that help a chess player as well – spatial awareness, or field vision.

Every top player must instinctively sense how (chess)men relate to one another on the battlefield. “The set of spatial relationships between players is the glue which holds a scene together.”[1]


A useful clustering on the field by the yellow team? Maybe not, but it will at least be memorable (cartoon Dušan Smiljanić, Serbia)

To test his space awareness, the researchers fitted Ronaldo with state-of-the-art eye trackers that revealed exactly where he looked during the play. Of course, he did look at the ball, but he much more looked where the opponents moved. He was looking around defenders taking information from their bodies, looking at the angles of their hips and the position of their feet, to assess opportunities and possible moves. All that subconsciously, instinctively.

Ronaldo was also looking the space beyond defenders to get a bigger picture, or strategic view of what was going on on the field to best help him how to use the ball.

This clearly shows that movements in both, soccer and chess, cannot go separate from visual understanding of space relationships. When we say relationships it means how power agents get engaged and interact during the game. The development of spatial concept should be an integral part of the beginning player’s training. It should help players begin to understand where and when to move and where to play the ball next, or what piece and in what direction to move on the chessboard.

This is typically neglected in favor of drills designed for developing on-the-ball skills, like kicking and dribbling in soccer, or various tactical skills in chess.[2] Tactics is important, but what makes it possible is understanding spatial concepts, acquisition of which can create opportunities and help make better moves. For example, space concepts raise tactical awareness for the possessor of ball to make better tactical decisions about where and when to penetrate the lines of defense using dribbling, shooting, or passing. On the other hand, the spatial sense helps a player with off-the-ball movement to support a teammate who has the ball.

Lasker and Einstein in a cartoon by Oliver Schopf

Relativity of space – even in chess space is sometimes warped (art Oliver Schopf, Germany)

These concepts are also indispensable when we want to create or deny space. In chess we activate pieces to get them freedom of movement. At the same time we strive for restricting the opponent’s pieces.

In addition, space visualization helps achieve field balance and avoid clustering of players. In chess we call it piece coordination, or piece harmony.

This component is exactly what makes Lionel Messi the best soccer player of this era, not Ronaldo – more skillful connecting lines of attack and greater contribution to team play make Messi the soccer king.

A goal is a collective achievement, the ultimate expression of a job well done by the entire team. Ronaldo is kind of selfish. When a teammate doesn’t pass the ball to him, his hands go to the hips. Lack of team spirit seems to run alongside his narcissistic nature.

Messi exceeds him because Messi creates as many goals for others as he scores for himself.

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By the way, who do you think is advancing to the next round in Group G along with Germany this coming Thursday, the US, Portugal, or Ghana?


1. Benjamin Rosman, Learning Spatial Relationships between Objects, 2011.

2. The same is true in tennis; as novice players learn to play, they tend to hit the ball right to their opponent instead of sending it into open space. It is not how, the more important question is, where to hit the ball?

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