Top footballers have brains that are wired to anticipate the moves of their opponents, scientists have discovered.
The research may explain why stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo are so good at intercepting the ball.
It suggests experienced players develop a mental ability making them less likely to fall for deceptive moves.
Scientists at Brunel University tested 39 players, ranging from novices to semi-professionals, who lay in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scanner while watching clips of an opposing team member dribbling the ball towards them.
When the oncoming player performed a deceptive manoeuvre, participants had to decide in which direction to move. At the same time, their brain activity was monitored.
Experienced footballers were more attuned to the actions and deceptive ploys of the opponent than novices.
Their performance was reflected in stronger activation of the brain's mirror neuron system (MNS) when predicting an opponent's actions.
The MNS is active not only when carrying out an action, but also when viewing the action performed by others.
There was clear evidence of greater brain recognition of opponents' movements among more skilful players.