With the start of the World Cup now in sight, Saturday’s continental amuse-bouche provided numerous questions for contemplation. Will teams adopt the furious pressing of Diego Simeone’s saveur du mois, or will the individual triumph over the collective as with Real’s neo-galactico ‘project’? Will the relentless narratisation of Diego Costa’s return ‘home’ be undermined by injury? And, most importantly, will a single goal scored at Brazil 2014 be as satisfying as Diego Godin’s lolloping header?
It may have lacked the physical dynamism of Gareth Bale’s extra-time leap or the risible histrionics of Ronaldo’s penalty but, make no mistake, the Uruguayan’s goal was a thing of exquisite beauty. Inching its way to the line at a testudinal pace, the heat and fury of El Derbi madrileño temporarily abated as the ball eluded Iker Casillas’ frantic efforts at retrieval – a rare, almost elegiac, hiatus in 120 minutes of relentless aggression and speed. Godin’s goal bore all the hallmarks of a classic of its genre; the glacial pace, the high loop and multiple bounce before reaching the line, and most importantly of all the fact that the strike failed to make the net twinge, let alone bulge.
Empirically, of course, all goals are identical – the “they all count the same” mantra trotted out by six-yard sniffers and last-man lurkers since time immemorial. And yet, once a goal is stripped back to its aesthetics, empiricism becomes the victim of a metaphorical heave into touch by an anvil-footed full-back. There are numerous more obvious candidates to transcend the status of mere notches on the scoreboard – the long-range howitzer, the intricate tika-taka bagatelle or Messi-esque slalom – but none, for me at least, can match the exquisite sight of a ball trundling apologetically over the line. The Slowgoal.
Previous World Cups have been littered with efforts like Godin’s, many of which endure as staples of the popular consciousness. Francois Omam-Biyik’s winner against Argentina in Italia 90’s fabled opener is perhaps the purest of its ilk; a header dribbling from the moment of impact, slowed even further by the fumbling of Nery Pumpido on its way to brushing the corner of the net. Here the genesis of an improbable World Cup story the Slowgoal can be divine, but it can also be diabolical. As a child, I had the image of Andreas Brehme’s deflected, looping free kick seared onto my memory for a number of years. 24 years on, I still flinch on recall – the slowness of the ball’s arc lending an unwelcome viscerality to a foggy memory.
What lies behind the beauty of such goals? What makes them so satisfying? There’s an element of schadenfruede, without doubt. Such goals inevitably – indeed, are required to – involve a degree of scrambling panic, usually on behalf of an unfortunate goalkeeper. This tempting of the ‘keeper – whose raison d’etre is to prevent the ball from reaching the net – offers up a teasing glimpse of fulfillment, before snatching it back. This fleeting offering lends the Slowgoal an existential grandeur to sit alongside the slapstick.
It’s not all reductive sneering, however. In the Epicurean model, two types of pleasure exist – the fulfillment of immediate or corporeal desire (moving pleasures) and the satiation of underlying or cerebral desire (static pleasures), commonly defined as the difference between eating a meal and lounging back full and contented following that meal. The inference is, of course, that the latter can be considered superior, existing as it does on a spiritual or philosophical level. Goals, ordinarily, are moving pleasures because they fulfill an immediate desire, with immediacy – the transition from foot to ball to net to joy taking place over fractions of seconds and before the full range of possibilities can be perceived. The phenomenon of the Slowgoal, on the other hand, can be rendered as an Epicurean static pleasure, the duration of time it takes for the ball to trundle over the line allowing sufficient scope for simultaneous contemplation of both the event and post-event satiation – a paradox fashioned from the deferred inevitability of what is to follow.
Finally, there is an element of satisfying counter-intuitivity at play. The spheroidal physics of the ball – dynamically attuned as they are to trajectory and velocity – lend themselves to force. Throw a child a ball, and their first instinct is not to caress but to pelt as hard and far as they can – an atavistic desire to demonstrate physical prowess of which the resulting inability to sublimate can be traced from the public school codification of the rules to the continuing failures of the England team at national tournaments. Flick through any football comic, and the narrative is exclusively comprised of veering top corner rockets by men with names like Hot Shot Hamish and Net Knack Norton (I made one of those up) that both play up to, and feed into this atavism. To see the ball fluffed into an unmoving net thus confounds our expectations and base desires – becoming less a ‘ghost goal’ than a ‘false goal’; a barely credible interpolation. This epistemological difficulty is compounded if the Slowgoal is performed deliberately, when it becomes an almost transgressive act by the attacker – a willful subversion of the norms in order to humiliate or deceive the opponent.
This offers up two additional fronts within this paradigm, the first being a particular favourite: the slow-motion lob. Over two decades on, a youthful memory of Peterborough’s Worrell Sterling equalizing at Leeds Road in a play-off semi final still stirs the embers, whilst Daniel Sturridge’s ludicrous goal against Everton this season – a lob so preposterous the ball brushed the lower troposphere before dropping back to earth – will doubtless remain with me for a further twenty years. On the world stage, one of the rare moments of genuine delight during the tepid 2010 World Cup came with Kamil Kopúnek’s slow and looping lob that put the seal on the Italy’s miserable attempt to defend their title, thought whether Gianluigi Buffon will look back with similar fondness is questionable.
The second, and perhaps most aesthetically enduring example of this sub-genre comes with the Panenka. Nearly forty years after Antonin Panenka sent his insouciant spot-kick spinning into the centre of a Stadin Crvena Zvezda net, the mixture of bemusement and delight the conceit provokes shows no signs of abating. That England’s exit from Euro 2012 failed to provoke any of the defining gnashing and smashing that customarily greets shoot-out failure was down in no small part to the fact a majority of fans were so befuddled by Pirlo’s penalty that the standard language of reaction ceased to be of use.
In a sport increasingly, and fatuously, obsessed with the neoliberal prototype of steroidal uniformity – a relentless effort to make every tournament more exciting, more important and more profitable than before – the Slowgoal provides a refreshing and levelling anti-narrative that enables us to glimpse the real allure of football through the pervasive sheen.
Posted by Ron Hamilton