‘Ted Lasso’ and its Cristiano Ronaldo moment: How the hit show goes for realistic soccer


When Phil Dunster lined up his free kick from 45 yards as the fictional AFC Richmond striker Jamie Tartt in Apple TV+’s hit show “Ted Lasso,” he was summoning his inner Cristiano Ronaldo. He just didn’t know exactly how much Ronaldo he was channeling.

Dunster wanted to recreate Ronaldo’s famous free-kick goal from the 2009 Champions League semifinal against Arsenal that defied odds, physics and Arsenal keeper Manuel Almunia. Here was the 29-year-old Dunster, last spring, on a pitch at Hayes and Yeading United F.C., just down the street from the West London Film Studios where “Ted Lasso” — which won four Emmys on Sunday night, including Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, and seven overall — was filmed, trying to replicate not just one of the hardest shots in all of soccer, but trying to emulate one of the best scorers the game has ever seen.

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While Dunster’s character, Tartt, had the skill — he’s depicted as an arrogant yet very good Premier League player in the show — and the bravado to make viewers believe he could pull off the shot, Dunster dug deep to rely on his soccer skill developed as a child. Though he’s an avid soccer fan, an ardent supporter of AFC Wimbledon of England‘s League One and tries to play 5-a-side twice a week, at the end of the day, Dunster is still an actor. In the back of his mind, though, Dunster knew that as long as he made a believable kick, the shot could be guided into the net by computer-generated imagery (CGI) during post-production, along with the addition of the stadium and fans that completed the scene.

In this scene, critical to Episode 6 of Season 2, the actors who played Dunster’s AFC Richmond teammates were instructed to react as if the shot had gone in to give AFC Richmond a 1-0 lead over Tottenham Hotspur in an FA Cup quarterfinal.

“I think my eyes were probably closed the whole way,” Dunster told ESPN from the kitchen of his West London home. On the first take, Dunster placed the ball, dragged his feet back on the turf as he lined up, took a deep breath while standing wide-legged, just like Ronaldo, and started his approach.

What happened next, much like Ronaldo’s kick in 2009, defied, well, everything.

It went in.

“There was nobody on the field more surprised than me,” Dunster said.

Brendan Hunt, one of the creators and writers who also plays Coach Beard, an assistant coach to Ted Lasso, the title character who’s played by Jason Sudeikis, another creator and writer, was standing next to the show’s soccer director, Pedro Romhanyi, and “just couldn’t f—ing believe it.”

“I mean, sure the goalie is not exactly doing his best there, but, I mean, it’s just f—ing impressive,” Hunt told ESPN during a break from the writers room in Los Angeles. “Not a lot of guys can do that, especially someone who does not have to do that because he’s just an actor. But he’s not just an actor. He’s also a damn fine footballer, and it was one of the coolest moments of the season.”

The reaction from the other actors wasn’t manufactured. It was as genuine as it comes. “There was a lot of, “Wait, did Phil do that? No, surely Phil didn’t do that,” Dunster remembered. Added Hunt: “Suddenly, they didn’t have to act at all. Like, everyone was losing their f—ing s—. It was so f—ing cool.”

One of Romhanyi’s goals for the show was to make the soccer portions as realistic as possible. He has seen other shows where the sports action wasn’t believable, and even though “Ted Lasso” is a show about a soccer team more so than the actual soccer, Romhanyi wanted to get it right.

“If you get the sport wrong, it’s almost like the suspension of disbelief for the viewer gets ruptured,” Romhanyi said. “So, you can no longer participate as a dramatic piece. So it was important for us to try and make it as easy on the eyes, credible.” Romhanyi put the odds of a professional making that shot at 1-in-100. The odds of Dunster scoring from that distance?

“Zero,” Romhanyi said. “I mean it shouldn’t have gone in. Yeah, I mean, yeah, zero.”

Everything on set stopped after Dunster scored that goal. “We all exulted,” Hunt said. His first thought was to run to “video village,” which was located just off field, to watch a replay. He took out his phone, gleefully oblivious to the glare from the monitor: “I just knew it had to be recorded for posterity,” Hunt said.

The video stayed on his phone for the past five months; Hunt waited for the episode to air on Aug. 27 before sharing it. Three days later, Hunt took the world behind the “Ted Lasso” curtain, tweeting the unedited footage of Dunster’s Ronaldo-esque goal. Dunster didn’t care — he was, in fact, excited about it getting out, and Hunt knew he had to post it “to make the world f—ing know what just happened here.”

The finished product was perfect, polished and exciting TV. A stadium full of raucous fans was added in post-production to give the scene as realistic a feel as if someone was sitting on their couch on a Saturday morning watching Premier League games. Getting to that point, though, was a collaborative effort behind the scenes, a bit of coincidence and studying. Lots of studying.

When the script for Episode 6 of Season 2 was written, as Hunt said is the case for every episode, it started as a collaboration between Sudeikis, Hunt and fellow creators and writers Joe Kelly and Bill Lawrence, and the guest writer for that episode, Brett Goldstein, who also plays Roy Kent, the angry yet tender former soccer star who has an affinity for F-bombs. The group worked together to write most of the episode before Goldstein — who took home the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series — put the finishing touches on it, according to Hunt.

The goal was always going to be part of the script, but how it was scored was open to debate. It was decided early in the writing process that it should be a long-distance free kick. No matter the distance from goal, free kicks can be dramatic. There’s a pause in the action. Defenders line up in a wall. The kicker sets up his team and then himself. “It’s sort of like time stops for a second for the shooter,” Hunt said.

Romhanyi’s job is to essentially take the writers’ soccer ideas, regardless of how unrealistic they might be — like scoring a free kick with an “unfeasible flight distance” — and make them a reality. When he and Kelly began discussing the shot, Kelly said “he wanted the free kick to be on the cusp of reality and fantasy — just on the cusp. Like you could argue it could happen, and you could argue it couldn’t happen. Right on the cusp.”

Hunt, an avid Arsenal fan, has been the de facto soccer expert on set. Dunster described him as the “go-to person. Brendan’s football reference knowledge is unreal, like it’s unprecedented. It’s verging on concerning. He is the sage with that stuff.” Romhanyi said the English describe supporters like Hunt as “trainspotters,” which is why Hunt was one of the first people Dunster went to with his idea of recreating Ronaldo’s 2009 free kick.

Hunt knew it all too well. In 2009, he was living in Los Angeles and at the time, the best place to watch European soccer on TV was at a bar. There he was on May 5, 2009, watching his beloved Arsenal play vaunted Manchester United alongside three young United fans. Manchester United won 3-1, and it was the only time Hunt has left a bar before an Arsenal game was over.

When Dunster brought up Ronaldo’s shot from that game, Hunt was “glad something good is coming from my pain and shame that I experienced that horrible, horrible day.” Romhanyi knew it was the perfect kick to try to replicate because of how Tartt’s ego and the kick’s arrogance match up nearly perfectly. However, Romhanyi didn’t think Dunster could do it, not so much because of Dunster, but because of Ronaldo.

“The Ronaldo one sort of defies the laws of gravity,” said Romhanyi. “When you watch it, like, ‘How can a human being generate that amount of power and control?'” Then Dunster threw Romhanyi a curveball; well, a knuckleball. He wanted to try the same type of knuckleball kick that Ronaldo has mastered.

“To be honest, I couldn’t teach him that,” Romhanyi said. “Everyone thinks they can hit a knuckleball, and very few people can and it is rare. I thought it was the right choice of spectacular skill for a star player. I was well behind Phil deciding to do it and I knew that he would be able to emulate the body shape, because he’s got such a good radar and appreciation of detail as a sportsman of what you need to do.

“I never thought it would go anywhere near the goal, though I mean, forget it. No way.”

The more Dunster tried a knuckleball, which essentially floats through the air instead of rotating like a typical kick, changing direction on its path toward the goal, he realized it wasn’t as easy as it looked. “Spoiler: It’s really f—ing hard to do a knuckleball,” Dunster said. But, as Romhanyi said, “What we can’t fake is the acting.”

While he couldn’t figure out the knuckleball, Dunster could naturally look the part of a Premier League-level player. He grew up playing for the Woodley Hammers in Reading, about 41 miles west of London, before picking up rugby. Dunster got back into soccer about six or seven years ago, and now plays every Wednesday — and most Mondays — all across London. He can tell that people he plays against in his 5-a-side matches tend to be a little disappointed that the man playing Tartt on TV isn’t as good in real life.

“I haven’t had any broken ankles yet,” Dunster joked. “They’re like, ‘Is that Jamie Tartt?’ And then they’re like, ‘No, it’s not Jamie Tartt. It’s just somebody who looks like him, who is not as good at football as him.'” Dunster, though, follows his AFC Wimbledon and the rest of English soccer like any other fan. He reads, listens to and ingests as much information as he can and like the rest of us, he promptly forgets it all. He might not be as obsessive as Hunt, but he’s just as much a fan. “I’ve always loved it,” he said. “I’ve always loved watching it. I love talking about it and playing it.”

Before the filming, Dunster studied Ronaldo’s kick in detail. “He knew it was a big moment,” Romhanyi said. “He knew what he wanted. He knew he was going to do the step-back, the laying it down, how he was going to talk to his mates.” Dunster spent the day before the shot rehearsing the scene and was “nowhere near” the goal, Romhanyi said. The day of, some of Dunster’s castmates, like Toheeb Jimoh, who plays Sam, and Billy Harris, who plays Colin, came up to Dunster with words of support and a pat on the back. Knowing that CGI was an option for the shot helped him be about “10 percent less anxious,” but he still wanted to get it right.

When it went in, Dunster said the look on his face was one of, “Oh, f—,” but he quickly snapped out of it and tried to play it off like Tartt would’ve, which was, “Yeah, cool. Cool, man.” The final cut didn’t include Dunster’s reaction, nor did it include a full cut of the shot, which both Hunt and Romhanyi pushed for — Hunt even texted Sudeikis, lobbying for the whole shot to be included. In the end, they understood the dramatic effect of the final edit, which veered between a wide shot, a close-up of the ball and a shot behind the net, which was also from the take of Dunster’s goal.

The goal did more than make for great TV. It reenergized a set. The soccer scenes are all usually shot separately from the rest of the show, over the course of a week or so. Days can get long. “Mild drudgery” can set in, Hunt said. Dunster’s kick changed that.

“It probably saved us at least an hour and a half, [maybe] two hours on the shooting schedule,” Romhanyi joked. “And it’s like, maybe there is a God out there who looked after us.”

Everyone on set, Hunt added, felt better. The final cut, however, did include parts of Ronaldo’s authentic celebration, which was Dunster’s doing. While studying Ronaldo’s shot, he kept seeing Manchester United teammate Rio Ferdinand grabbing Ronaldo’s jaw after the goal as Ronaldo puffed his chest to the adoring crowd. Dunster loved it; he told Harris, who plays Colin and is a Manchester United fan, to replicate that with him. When Dunster made it, Colin did.

Looking back on it, Dunster called the shot “the greatest fluke of my career,” and said it’s still “astounding that it happens.” Yet, no one, he added, was more surprised than him.

When asked what Sudeikis thought of the shot, Dunster couldn’t help but crack a joke. “I think he said, verbatim, ‘Wow, that’s the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life. There’s literally nothing better. Phil, you’re the best.’ I think, or maybe I dreamed that. I don’t know. I don’t remember now,” Dunster said with a smile.

“I don’t know if he was even there on the day! He was probably creating the show. But yeah, he came up later on and he was like, ‘I heard that you scored that. That’s amazing.’ I was like, ‘Thank you.'”

Making sure the soccer is as realistic as it can be has been a goal of the show’s since its inception. Just one goal in Season 2 was altered in post-production, Romhanyi said, while the opposing teams are made up of actual semi-professionals. The action has also been a way for characters’ storylines to carry on in an arena when drama isn’t at the forefront.

“The football is giving you a physical externalization of a character’s inner issues,” Romhanyi said. “So, it’s not a football match. It’s not just, ‘Oh, he did a good tackle,’ and so on.”

Some of the actors on AFC Richmond had to submit video of them playing soccer as part of their auditions. Dunster was among those who didn’t. While the soccer ability varies among the cast, there are some natural soccer players. Cristo Fernandez, who plays Dani Rojas, was at Estudiantes Tecos U.A.G. in Mexico and later played in Puerto Rico for Guayama FC before a knee injury ended his pro dreams. Romhanyi also mentioned Jimoh and Kola Bokinni, who plays Isaac, among the better players, but said Mohammed Hashim, who plays Moe Bumbercatch, was the best in the group.

“These guys have all played to a decent standard and they’re pretty good,” Romhanyi said. “They’ve got their mindset. It was well cast because they know what to do and with the benefit of rehearsal, they can pull it off.”

Romhanyi will cater the actors’ moves to what they can do best in real life, and he’ll adjust as filming goes if an actor believes he can do one move better than another. Rehearsals typically start with a walk-through and as the filming day wears on, the speed picks up. Then the details are added: Which way is everyone running? If a player is marking someone else, how should he pull his shirt? How should they push off?

It helps, Romhanyi said, that most of the cast is “football obsessive.” They know how players celebrate, how they argue, how they cheat. He has even noticed that the night after rehearsal, the actors typically fine-tune their moves with splashes of their characters’ personalities. When the lights are on and the cameras are rolling, the soccer looks like, well, soccer.

“We do everything to make it as authentic as possible,” Romhanyi said. “Our job is to make it work on a sporting level, where the credibility of the momentum of the ball and the physics and the motion is fluid, so that you watch it as, ‘Yeah, I think it’s credible.’ You go along with it.”

It’s worked so far.

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