Cristiano Ronaldo has done it 60 times; Lionel Messi, 55 years old. In the middle of the 20th century, the great Brazilian Pelé succeeded no less than 92 times.
In football, there really is a special prestige in scoring a hat-trick. Of course it’s nice to stand out from the crowd with a purpose, or even loot a couple; but a striker really has earned their living if they can find the net three times in a single game. British journalist Adam Hurrey, the author of the book Soccer Clichéshas describe the hat-trick as a “perfectly balanced football achievement”.
Bullet, Rooney, Ronaldo…
Hat tricks signaled the arrival of a superstar – see Gareth Bale gallops Hat-trick against Inter Milan in 2010or Wayne Rooney’s explosive debut for Manchester United in 2004. They even persuaded fans to applaud opposing playersan honor United fans bestowed on Ronaldo Nazário when he netted three times for Real Madrid in a 2003 Champions League tie at Old Trafford.
In 1966, meanwhile, Geoff Hurst’s World Cup final hat-trick for England prompted Kenneth Wolstenholme to utter probably the most famous phrase ever uttered by an English-language football commentator:
And after no other feat, a football player can bring the match ball home.
Hurst’s three-goal run in 1966, it should be noted, is also an example of what is known in football as the “perfect” hat-trick: scoring one with the right foot, one with the left and one with the head.
Where does the term ‘hat-trick’ come from?
Cricket, it seems. In the sport of bat and ball, invented by the English around the 16th century, a bowler would have scored a hat-trick if he brought out three batsmen from three successive deliveries. Cricket’s use of the term only for consecutive wickets clearly differs from football, which counts three goals scored at any time in the same match as a hat-trick.
According to Extended Oxford English Dictionarycricket adopted the phrase in the mid-nineteenth century, when a bowler was rewarded for taking three consecutive wickets when receiving a hat. “He came into service after HH Stephenson took three wickets in three balls for the all England eleven against Hallam’s 22 at the ground in Hyde Park, Sheffield in 1858,” says the OED. “A fundraiser was held for Stephenson (as was the custom for outstanding professional achievement) and he received a cap or hat purchased with the proceeds.”
In his book Arm-ball to Zooter: An oblique look at the language of cricketLawrence Booth said another similar explanation is that after a bowler had scored a hat trick, “a collection would be taken from among the crowd, which generously placed their guilders and farthings in – you guessed it – a hat.”
In Allen Expression Dictionary, lexicographer Robert Allen agrees that the “hat trick” entered sporting parlance via cricket in the 19th century. “In the 1870s,” Allen writes, “the phrase is found in a cricket mate written by one of the Lillywhites’ family members: “Having on one occasion taken six wickets in seven balls, thus successfully achieving the hat-trick”.
However, Allen also notes that another possible reason for using the term to refer to a set of three is its connection to magicians. “A hat trick was originally a trick performed by a conjurer, usually involving three hats,” he writes.
Use beyond the sports world
If it was sport that launched the “treble” into the daily lexicon, its use has spread to all other areas of life. In June 2021, for example, writer Michael Wolff’s third book on the Trump presidency was welcomed by the Times title: “Trump author pulls off a hat trick with an inside story of defeat.”
And although the term usually refers to accomplishments, it can also be used to describe negative circumstances or results. For example, when the UK’s ruling political party, the Conservatives, was defeated in three local by-elections in late June, several UK newspapers reported that the Conservatives had suffered a “treble of defeats”.