The ball punctured the air and everything fell silent. It soared upward, scuffed the lower atmosphere, then dipped, leveled, and rattled furiously toward its target. The shot by Germany’s Torsten Frings in the opening game of the 2006 Soccer World Cup was a heat-seeking missile. As it finally veered right, fiendishly out of reach of the keeper, one imagined an eye-patched villain armed with a remote control behind its design. It was one of the best goals in recent tournament history.
Lately, aroused by Lionel Messi’s bounty of scoring perhaps, I have contemplated the anatomy of sticky goals—the ones that adhere to the mind like the treasured pieces of a scrapbook. I mentally splice these clips, Frings’ among them, like a crusty old head coach trying to deduce their inner workings. Why do they hold in my cerebrum like the colors of a Van Gogh painting, or Rolling Stones lyrics? What makes them memorable? I am not entirely sure, but they continue to spin, sometimes in slow-mo, other times in fragments, on an endless loop of personal favorites. There’s Maradona’s playful dissection of England in 1986—the so-called “Goal of the Century”—in which Argentina’s famed No.10 rockets through the defense like one of those mining carts in The Temple of Doom. There’s Roberto Carlos’ cambering free kick in 1997′s Tournai de France, with a bend so surreal it could reconstitute Dhali’s clocks. And you might expect, a few of Pele’s goals persist too, including that bobbling machination against Sweden in 1958, which on replay seems implausibly quick for the halcyon era.
In truth, many of the great goals I’ve witnessed in thirty years of watching soccer have been on grainy video tapes recorded by my soccer-crazed father, who taught my brother and I the game. Pele and Maradona, as well as Beckenbauer, Best, and Puskas were the men who walked the fields of our dreams. They set universal benchmarks and built the sport’s temple, and like so many young students around the world, willingly we came to learn. But my long-held belief that the purest technique and perfect timing is at the root of these goals, has since dilated to include creativity, instinct, and unique context, converging in a rare moment of opportunity. By any measure, a memorable goal—or a “brilliant” one, as renowned English commentator, Martin Tyler, would say—calls for at least one of the aforementioned elements. The context of Maradona’s bullish 50-yard bolt through England, for example, was underscored by not only the ongoing rivalry between the two nations, but the contrast in their footballing styles—the calcified English muscle, stern on challenges and forceful on the dribble, versus the liquid and efficacious Argentinians, threading and weaving moves into a mesmerizing tapestry. There’s the sheer surge and power of the run, a centrifugal force, swooping and spinning toward a devastating finish. But the artistry is illuminated by the circumstance and stage. It was also the winning goal, as it turned out.
Certainly any goal of brilliance, must live in the paradigm of creativity, because the scorer is required to disrupt the flow or pattern of the game in order to produce it. In some cases, he will even defy the laws of trigonometry, gravity, and logic. Consider Pele’s many and varied circus acts of the late fifties, during which time, any level of soccering magic, and voodoo, could have headlined at Vegas on account of its obscurity. Eventually, of course, Pele’s trickery adorned Broadway for the New York Cosmos, and in that context, the sophistication of his game was beyond creative: it was genius. His most beautiful effort, the stupefying and iconic manipulation of the ball against Juventus in 1959, was perhaps the closest he drew to virtuosity. It was complex, creative and instinctive all at once. I can’t imagine an impotent mind, even one in tandem with supreme physical strength and athleticism, producing such a wicked goal. That is, unless, someone like Cristiano Ronaldo, smacks the ball so venomously that it’s sheer propulsion converts to success. This, is perhaps its own art, and within the framework of more flaccid strikes, can also appear otherworldly.
I recall watching former Old Dominion University star forward, Jimmy Tanner, pouncing on the ball inside the penalty box, and then storming the goalmouth like a tornado. He was unstoppable, if not overtly skillful. Tanner would eventually slot the ball past the keeper neatly, but not before a flurry of movement. He did this repeatedly in Colonial Athletic Association games during the 1999 season, and I remember thinking how raw and instinctive those goals were. The English great, Alan Shearer, played with similar faculty, as does Clint Dempsey, whose dagger against Italy in a recent friendly was produced before the defense could react.
At the University of Technology in Sydney some years ago, a school that wins regularly in the local league, I saw a young right-wing midfielder, incidentally wearing David Beckham’s No.7, execute a goal that might guide our study further. It took reams of wizardry to navigate the college’s home park, with thick grass that could strangle a ball like the tentacles of a giant octopus. Deep passes along the edge had little chance of survival, especially in the wet, where the ball might sink or suddenly skid. Instinct and anticipation were imperative.
On this day, the ball ricocheted around the midfield like a pinball, lost among bruised and bleeding legs. Once in a while, a shot whipped by the goal posts, like the occasional passing of a Formula One car by the starting pole. With the clouds darkening above and an icy wind pinching at those left in the bleachers, No.7 drifted infield, an initiative that usually leaves the wing vulnerable, but can also urge a result. A centered pass floated toward him and he caught the ball in the pit of his chest, instantly killing its spiral. It sat there for a millisecond before dropping waste high, where he juggled it with a raised thigh. He turned his back to the sideline, pivoted and parried the ball up again, all in a single movement. The opposition froze. Such mastery, after all, can turn players into spectators on account of its irregularity. The Costa Ricans learned this when Frings found space about 25 yards from goal that sunny June afternoon in ’06.
With the ball up at eye level, the player set his left leg in motion like a wrecking ball. His boot swung back, its studs churning flakes of mud beyond his shoulder, and leaning forward, he punched the leather before it could splash into the bog below. The shot flew up and over the wall of defenders, before breaking an inch or two downward, and then held this trajectory. Everything in the park was still. Even the keeper. The ball suddenly speared into the top left corner of the goal, almost ripping away its net backing. It was dynamic and instantaneous, and perhaps inspired by Paul Gascoigne’s Euro ’96 composition, in which he casually chipped the last defender before shooting; or the exquisite and perfect volley by French maestro Zinedine Zidane in the Champions League Final of 2001.
By the time the goalie had scooped up the shrapnel from the strike, the clouds were ready to empty and boots had become cold and heavy. But for a minute after, players and fans reveled in the moment, a splendid culmination of thoughts and things before it, as every new piece of art is.