On Perfection

If you’ve played football, you know that moment where you are in a situation 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.

As Ray Hudson knows, there’ s a special sort of pleasure that comes from hitting or seeing someone hit a soccer ball just right.

We here at this particular blog tend to appreciate soccer as a game of ideas, both the big tactical ones and the small, the on the pitch flashes on inspiration that are totally unexpected yet absolutely right. We gravitate towards this aspect of the game because we’re nerds, for one, but also because we believe it’s what sets the sport apart. Every athlete, from swimmers to bobsledders to centers to fencers, has to physically perform as perfectly as they can in order to maximize their chances of success, whether that’s stroke technique or sled mounting or footwork in the block or keeping the proper distance between you and your opponent.

Our game, we like to think, requires a little something extra, that nugget of creativity that the cynics say not enough players in the U.S. possess, an ability to beat an opponent not just through fancy footwork or hard running, but via the unexpected touch or pass that turns a disadvantageous scenario into an advantageous one.

But there is beauty in the perfect execution as well, the cross that drops right over the opposing goalkeeper and onto your teammate’s head, or the trapping of a 50 yard pass, or better yet, something like this:

It’s because of this that we, the soccer community, love that goal from Arie Haan against Italy in the 1978 World Cup so much. True, there’s an idea there too, but if we’re being honest with ourselves it’s a stupid one. If that shot had been hit any less well, it would have ended up in the streets outside the stadium, or killing that poor Italian midfielder who seems to try to jump in front before thinking better of it. Instead, he executed it perfectly, to the extent where I’m not sure that anyone has ever hit a ball better than Arie Haan did this one, a forty yard drive that famously appears to be still rising when it goes off the post and in:

That goal is a physics problem, and unlike one of Ronaldo’s knuckle-free kicks, it’s a relatively straightforward one, velocity and time and distance and angle all inputted into an equation with the result of Dino Zoff, by all accounts a top-ten keeper ever, looking thoroughly stunned. And he was the second goalie Haan scored on that way during the tournament:

My touch may be iron and I may be horribly out of shape, but on a good day, at low tide and with the planets aligned just properly, I too can hit the ball just right, the perfect cross, the perfect chip, the perfect shot. These are moments we can have too, even as pickup plebians, these little instants of perfection.

The best shot I ever hit in my life happened one spring Sunday afternoon. The ball was passed back to me, 40 yards out from goal and on the left touchline of our rather narrow field, a high school practice football field with a cracked concrete track circling it. I took one step up to the ball and with my first touch hit a drive that spun up into the air, a long slow field goal. It wasn’t even heading towards the goal, rather a spot five or so yards right of the right-hand post. As it entered the six-yard box, it plummeted and swerve sideways, like the wickedest 12-6 curveball you can imagine, right into the top corner of the net.

Too bad there wasn’t a keeper in the goal. I hit this shot, this glorious, glorious shot, during the one preseason practice session my college intramural team had, as I jogged onto the field immediately after lacing up my cleats, the first time I’d touched a ball all day. At the time, I was still playing goalie for that team, and I was the one who jogged the rest of the way to retrieve my ball from the back of the net.

But I wasn’t the only one who had noticed. While I stood in goal and strapped my gloves on, a middle-aged man who had been running on the track surrounding the field slowed to a stop behind my goal.

“Did you mean to do that?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” I told him, lying.

“And you play goalie for them?” He sounded most impressed by this fact.

“Yep,” I said.

He nodded for a bit, and continued jogging. It wasn’t Ray Hudson, but it would do.

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One Response to On Perfection

  1. hansh says:

    ” ‘Did you mean to do that?’ he asked.

    ‘Absolutely,’ I told him, lying.”

    Ahh, the most common lie told during pickup soccer! :) Playing an indoor game one time (6 vs 6 on a very small field) I scored an absolute beauty from the halfway line. Free kick from the left side that I had to take with my left foot because of the wall (I’m right footed), and it curled sublimely over everyone and passed right into the far upper corner of the goal. I was aiming for the near post, but you’ll never hear it from me!

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