19 June 2008

Goals are over-rated

I don't think you can ever really be neutral watching a football match. The issue is more complex than merely having an allegiance to one of the teams, or a prejudice against the other. You want to see good football, whatever 'good' happens to mean to you. To me it means, broadly, playing with an attacking spirit, with flair and a high level of technical ability on show as well, if possible. So immediately you're not the blank slate you may even try to fool yourself into thinking you are. And, of course, if one team shows these qualities significantly more than the other, you'll instinctively wish for their success.

So it was for me and Russia last night. Their display of attacking verve trumped Sweden's consummate Sweden-ness last night. It was the kind of performance that left you wanting more, and their win means we shall get it on Saturday night as they play - can it be true? - Holland. They scored two team goals so wonderful that I'm tempted to regard them in the same light as Holland's three (three!) similarly-worked efforts against Italy and France. That it's a Good Thing that they have qualified is something we can probably all agree on, except the Swedes, and perhaps Sam Allardyce.

Yet my abiding memory won't be of any of the above. I reckon there should be award for Best Non-Scoring Shot of the tournament; it should be instituted just so that we don't forget Henrik Larsson's miss. A gorgeous, long-range, twisting header, it inexplicably looped towards the far top corner. Just as inexplicably, it failed to drop in, instead bouncing off the top of the crossbar.
In that moment, despite having already fallen for Russia, I was a Sweden fan. It hurt.

It's been said that Pelé's fantastical dummy against Uruguay in 1970 was all the more beautiful for the fact that it was followed by a near miss when he collected the ball and shot. I'm beginning to agree with this.

It's probably this bloody tournament. Not having my own team to follow, nor a natural rival on whom to wish bad cess, has left me vulnerable. I've fallen in love with so many teams in the last week and a half. Naturally, some have already broken my heart ; and I know that some more will do so again during the next ten days (that's not being pessimistic; it's just a mathematical certainty). Watching these games, I've become hypersensitive to these little moments of tragedy, and I dwell upon them.

I'm frail, people. Just now, I saw an ikkle drop of rain-water fall off a leaf and onto a squirrel's head, and I cried.

Who knows what I'll be like by the time the competition's over? God, I love football.


Steve 20/6/08 4:45 PM  

It's taken a long time for my philosophy to evolve to a similar point. Goals are how we measure bottom lines, after all. And it's the winners' names in the record books. The younger me might have considered the data the end of the story. Maturity has brought a certain appreciation for the nuance and the narrative, though. Memories are the new bottom line. Artistry that misses is still artistry, and dramas are replete with shades of gray that a black/white, goal/no goal accounting fails to capture.

Do you find that the aesthetics of this beautiful game have helped you come to this view? Relatedly, is it easier to think more deeply about meaning in football than about other things? Maybe life is a metaphor for football. And maybe I'm ready for a weekend... with 2 enticing matches on tap.

fredorrarci 22/6/08 12:24 AM  

Excellent comment, Steve, and one that deserves a considered reply. I need to have a think on this one.

fredorrarci 22/6/08 11:07 PM  

So I've thunk on it a bit. Here goes.

Of course, when I titled this post, I was being a wee bit mischievous. Sometimes I feel that those who argue against the inane "but how could you like a game that can end scoreless?" types can over-egg it slightly by claiming that soccer is awash with classic 0-0s. A 0-0 can be indeed be glorious (I count the Italy-Germany WC semi-final as an honorary great 0-0 myself), but to be shamelessly reductive for a mo', if goals were to disappear from the game it would be hardly be worth watching. 'Goals change games' as all the best and worst pundits say, more so than any other event in a match.

And as we know, some goals are truly beautiful, and can be so in a variety of ways. This is a great strength of football, I feel. You can admire a great basket - a three-pointer, a subtle lay-up after the shooter changes his shot in mid-air (I'm sure there's a succinct technical term for that), a dunk - but individual scores don't seem to be celebrated as much in basketball, unless they come in a clutch situation, like Tim Duncan's three against Phoenix in this year's playoffs. Plus, most baskets look pretty similar; I know some people get really impressed by slam dunks, but a dunk is a dunk is a dunk to my eyes - now if they employed blindfolds and cupcakes and Superman capes in actual games, I might be really impressed.

The proliferation of scores in basketball (which is something to be admired - I don't know if you've read this from The Run Of Play, every word of which is true) means that the idea of finding beauty in a missed shot would not even be entertained. I like it that in football we can marvel at Larsson's header, or Kolodin's long-range shots last night, or Pelé's miss against Uruguay, or his halfway-line shot against Czechoslovakia in the same event; that Johann Cruyff can say that Holland in fact achieved a victory of sorts in 1974 by playing in a style that will be remembered forever, or that mention of Brazil's 1982 team - quarter-finalists in that year's World Cup and therefore losers - can bring a tear to the eye of people of a certain age.

The difficulty in scoring goals in football is derided by some and, this is understandable if your view on sport is shaped by, say, baseball or basketball. But as soccer lovers, we can properly appreciate the value of a goal (Joe McGinniss wrote about "marveling at the fact that a goal can ever be scored") and delight in its execution by whichever of the multifarious methods possible. It also gives us room to revel in the pursuit of a goal even if it is fruitless. We know how difficult it is to score, and we can applaud the guile and graft that goes into trying to do so, even in its failure. And maybe in extreme cases, you can, like many with Pelé's Uruguay attempt or me with Larsson's header, regard the fact of the miss as intrinsically part of the moment's beauty, like an imperfection on the face of your lover.

I should add that part of the reason I feel how I do about Larsson's miss is because of the man himself, who I have great admiration for. He has gone quite under-rated, I believe, maybe because he spent much of his career outside of the biggest leagues. I like how he definitively showed at Barcelona and even his brief sojourn at Old Trafford what he was really made of, and also the fact that in the face of disbelief from many, he stuck to his guns by leaving Barca to return to Sweden. I was delighted when he was called up for the Euros because otherwise his last significant act in international football would have been the penalty miss against Germany in 2006 - how cool would it have been had he signed off with a goal from that header instead?

As to whether it's "easier to think more deeply about meaning in football than about other things", I'm not sure I'm in a position to say; my objectivity is questionable. I love watching many sports, but football is the one that means the most to me, that I know and think the most about. (I deliberately avoided calling the blog Football Is A TV Show so as to allow me to write about other sports as well - you can see for yourself how successful that's been so far.) I think about it more than most things, full stop. Maybe we read too much into it; this blog is partly an attempt to reconcile myself to this possibilty. Right now, spoiled rotten by this tournament especially, I'm not sure I care.

Um, I hope I've made sense and answered your points, Steve. You know how I ramble sometimes. It's been nice having my brain tickled so.

Steve 23/6/08 7:47 PM  

I'm glad I checked back. That was a well-constructed reply, chock-full of great examples.

I like Larsson, too. His amazing feats in front of goal for Celtic were high points, but stints elsewhere proved his quality, as well. I was sad Man U didn't have him longer.

Your quote by Joe McGinniss is certainly an apt one. Was that from The Miracle of Castel di Sangro? That was a great book even if I did grow a little weary of the hero-worship (of himself) in the end.

fredorrarci 24/6/08 11:17 PM  

Yep, that's the book. I see what you mean about McGinniss alright, though I thought his efforts to have Jaconi take his 'expert' advice to be quite funny, too. How Jaconi didn't punch his lights out I'll never know.

It's wonderful book. I love it as much for McGinniss' journey from soccer novice to complete infatuation as for the amazing story of Castel di Sangro.

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