My thanks to Abby Wambach for reminding us all of one of soccer’s little pleasures.
You see, for all the comparisons to orgasm, all the spontaneous yet unified exclamations of joy they elicit, the goal itself is not really the best part of watching soccer. Goals can be great, are often good and sometimes range from mediocre to awful, but they are not the point of our viewing. If that were the case, I imagine most of us American fans at least would have listened to our insufferable friends and coworkers and long ago abandoned it for a sport where the scoring, if not the action, is more plentiful. But, as the cliché goes, it’s the journey that matters, not the destination, or something like that.
To me, these three, not the goals, are the “best parts” of watching soccer:
1. The staggering work of genius. A player does something so impressive, so unexpected, that the spectator’s mind is arrested even as play continues, caught at full blast like a jet landing on an aircraft carrier, trying to figure out how that moment was even possible. The goal itself — it’s not necessary that these moments end in goals, though many of the best ones do — isn’t the point.
The staggering work of genius is a display of mastery. Zidane demonstrated his mastery of his body with his Champions League final volley against Bayer Leverkusen. Bergkamp demonstrated his mastery of the ball with his goals against Newcastle in 2002 and against Argentina in 1998. Cruyff demonstrated mastery of his opponent with his famous turn. Xavi demonstrated mastery of the field of play with this pass against Malaga, and many others. It is the perfect touch, the unstoppable shot from an impossible angle, the passing lane that only two people in the entire world see; where speed of thought moves slower than speed of play.
2. The flawless execution. There is beauty in doing the little things correctly. These are the moments available to us pickup plebeians, a perfect cross, a well-hit pass, a volleyed shot that goes at the goal, rather than twenty-five feet over. We may not do them every time, or most of the time, or even mean them when they do happen, but they are moments we are capable of. As the Dutch artist Jeroen Henneman tells David Winner in the latter’s Brilliant Orange, “If you’ve played football, you know that moment where you are in a stuation and the ball comes and you hit the ball and somehow every millimeter is perfect…When you see it done on the pitch, you see a miracle.”
Rapinoe’s assist is an obvious and timely example, but so were the penalty kicks that sealed the win for the U.S. Each, with the exception of the called back first one, was right where it needed to be, a no-chancer.
3. Finally, as Wambach so neatly demonstrated for us, there are the moments of anticipation. These are a comparatively simple pleasure, something that can happen in any game, at any age or skill level, and they lose nothing in the transition from the international to the recreational arena.
Moments of anticipation can happen anytime during the run of play, any time the viewer realizes that something might happen before it does happen. When you in the crowd see a streaking runner and wonder whether the player on the ball sees him too, that’s one. When a defender starts his lunge at the shooter and you wonder if he’s going to make it there in time is another. When the ball is loose in the box and you wonder who’s going to get there first. The best kind though, are the ones like Wambach’s goal.
No matter which teams you’re watching, the vast majority of balls crossed in the air into the box are cleared by the defense. They have a number of advantages: on everything but a corner kick the angle favors a play in their direction — they get to watch the ball and where they’re trying to aim it at the same time — and while a forward has a small arc in which to play the ball for it to be considered a success, the defense can hit it just about anywhere and be all right.
But you can always tell immediately when they don’t get to it. Defenders clear as soon as the ball is in range; attackers have to wait for the right moment to strike. And it’s in that split-second between the earliest possible moment and the right one, which goes by so fast that you have to recognize it without even consciously thinking about it, that your heart decides it can’t be bothered to beat just now, lest it miss something important.
Anything seems like it can happen even when one of two outcomes is possible: success or failure, glory or shame. The anticipation makes it the opposite of the spontaneous brilliance demonstrated by the staggering work of genius; the fan realizes the potential before anything definite happens and has to wait for that instant for his or her greatest hopes or worst fears to be confirmed.