As you may have noticed, it’s not all lollipops and summer days around here. I’ve been pretty dissatisfied with media coverage of World Cups since 2010, when the press focused too much on the “Africa” in South Africa. Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Except when everybody talks only about voodoo and raises doubts about “proper organization.” Nobody bothered to puncture the surface and probe for worthwhile stories of humanity.
Brazil 2014 has not been different. However, in the interest of reader sanity, it helps to recall that, despite problems off the field, the World Cup has produced some magical moments. The Guardian has a nice series on this. Here are some of my own favorite moments that revolve around goals not happening.
Pele’s Dummy, Mexico 1970
Pele. O Rei. The King. The greatest player ever (unless you’re a Maradona acolyte). He scored more goals than you can count on two hundred sets of hands and set up the iconic “Perfect” goal in the final vs. Italy in 1970. Still, my favorite Pele moment does not revolve around his athleticism, finishing, or first touch. Rather, it centers around his cunning and instinct.
In the semifinal vs. Uruguay, he did this.
It takes a lot of gumption to round the keeper. But to try and round the keeper without the ball? We’ve all seen lovely weighted passes to overlapping fullbacks, powerful bullet headers, and thunderous free kicks, but have you ever seen a player at a high level attempt something even remotely similar? There is no term in English, Spanish, or any other human language to describe that move. Aside from Holy Shit.
The shot didn’t go in, but Brazil won that game and also the final vs. Italy. With confidence and creativity like that, it’s hardly surprising.
Zico’s Head, Argentina 1978
The Argentine Dictatorship viewed the 1978 World Cup as a single stone to slay two birds: (1) promote the country to foreigners and (2) raise the Argentine public’s morale. To do this, they needed to win the thing. And to win the World Cup, they basically feared three sides: Holland (even without Cruyff), Germany (always fear the Germans), and eternal rival Brazil.
Thus, things got off to an ominous start for Brazil. In the opening game vs. Sweden, Zico headed in Brazil’s third (and winning) goal a mere eight seconds in stoppage time, but there was one problem…
The ref had called time just after the corner kick was taken. Why would a ref wait for a corner kick to be mid-flight before blowing the whistle to end the game? Well, if you are a cynic, then refs are humans and humans often make mistakes. If you are a conspiracy theorist, then you suspect the dictatorship made a deal that could not be refused (think plata o plomo).
Regardless, things would only get shadier. In the last group game, Brazil won but Argentina, who played later, beat Peru 6-0. They edged out Brazil on goal-difference. And the Peruvian goalie was born in Argentina. No matter how good Brazil was, it wasn’t going to be their year.
Balboa’s Chilena, USA 1994
He donned perhaps the greatest mullet ever produced by US soccer. In the game v. Colombia, the US was leading 2-0 and the Rose Bowl was rocking. Oozing with confidence, the US pressed with conviction, counterattacked with speed, and earned a corner around the 80 minute mark.
Then, Marcelo Balboa, locks flowing, mustache creeping, confidence flowing, attempted this:
The chilena, known in English as a “bicycle kick”, requires incredible skill, technique, and timing. At USA 94, the Americans didn’t have the most talented players, but the self-belief was off the charts. A generation of young Americans learned how to dream (and perm their hair). Tony Meola may still be chuckling, although the ponytail is long gone. And for Balboa haters, he actually scored a chilena in MLS play six years later.
Baggio’s Blushes, USA 1994
In the Catholic-dominated country of Italy, Roberto Baggio was a very public Buddhist. In a meeting with the Pope, John Paul jokingly called him “his worst nightmare.” Ever so humble, Baggio missed the joke and apologized for any embarrassment he may have caused. John Paul then explained that he himself had played goalie as a youth, and hence his fear and respect for Baggio as a goalscorer.
In terms of play, Baggio brought chaos to Italy’s organization, creativity to catenaccio. If the Italians are known for equal parts neuroses and defending with numbers, then Baggio’s effortless movement and silky first touch stood out like a sore thumb. He wore ponytail amidst a sea of carefully greased hair and buzzcuts. In USA 94, he shined in the knockout stages, scoring the tying and winning goal vs. Nigeria, the winner vs. Spain in the quarterfinals, and both goals in the semifinal win over Bulgaria.
In the final against Brazil, two nervous and well organized teams played out deserved (if painful) 0-0 draw. After extra time ended, they went to spotkicks. The Brazilians were mostly clinical, but the Italians fell apart. Franco Baresi and Daniel Massaro both failed to convert. However, it was left to Baggio, the fifth in line, to convert or Italy would lose. And this happened.
It’s sad that a player known for exquisite skill skied a spot kick well over the bar. What’s ironic is that Baggio was the key to Italy’s deep run, but ultimately missed the kick that cost them the title. Even if he had made it, Brazil’s 5th taker could have scored and ended the tournament. Baggio’s fate was already out of his hands, and he choked. In a later interview, he admitted that as a player he preferred to delicately chip penalties to corners ala (the later) Francesco Totti. For that kick, though, he went against his nature and tried for power.
Suarez’s Sinister Hand, South Africa 2010
Luis Suarez. Liverpool’s white knight. Shady or smart? Clever or sinister? Suarez, undoubtedly, plays the game on a knife’s edge. He often uses his physicality to tackle defenders and steal the ball, but then drops like a piece of paper when a center back so much as looks at him the wrong way. A cheat? A schemer? If Suarez plays against your team, he soils the beautiful game. If Suarez plays for your team, the field is a place of surprises and endless possibilities.
A product of his environment, Suarez fits in well with the Uruguayan team’s reputation for garra, literally meaning the “claw” but referring to a “never say die attitude”. You take what you can when you can. You win by any means necessary. In the World Cup quarterfinals vs. Ghana, he manned the near post and saw a headed ball flying towards net. His goalie beat, he took matters into his own hands.
In terms of cost-benefits analysis, Suarez traded a red card and penalty kick for a probably game-winning goal. And there’s the crappy part: it worked out. Ghana missed the spotkick and, after extra time, lost in spotkicks to the Charruas. Suarez is unsettling to many because, in soccer as in life, sometimes it pays to not play by the rules. That header is the goal for Ghana that wasn’t. Africa will have to hope 2014 a team can finally reach the semifinals.
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