The Ringer’s 22 Goals: The Story of the World Cup, a podcast by Brian Phillips, tells the story of some of the most iconic goals and players in the history of the men’s FIFA World Cup. Every Wednesday, until the end of Qatar 2022, we’ll publish an adapted version of each 22 Goals episode. Today’s story involves an unlikely goal-scorer from 2010.
1. That’s No Moon
Fernando Muslera doesn’t know it yet, but he’s about to get blown to smithereens.
It’s July 6, 2010. World Cup semifinals, Green Point Stadium, Cape Town, South Africa.
Netherlands versus Uruguay. We are 17 minutes into the match.
Fernando Muslera is the goalkeeper for Uruguay. He’s 24 years old. He’s one of the most athletic and acrobatic goalkeepers on the face of the earth, and what is about to happen to him should come with a content warning. It’s upsetting.
The Dutch defender Giovanni van Bronckhorst has the ball at his feet, way, way out on the left side of the pitch, near the touchline, maybe 35 yards from the goal.
He’s so far from the goal, Van Bronckhorst, that the only way you can see him and Muslera in the same shot is through the super zoomed-out overheard angle. You know the one where ESPN has a camera on a pulley above the stadium, and all the players look like ants? Like a model train might chug by at any moment? That one.
Van Bronckhorst has the ball at his feet. Muslera is standing by the near post, gazing out at Van Bronckhorst and the ball across this vast distance.
He simply cannot imagine what is about to happen to him.
When I think about Muslera in this moment, I picture a child looking up at the night sky on the planet Alderaan.
The stars are tranquil. The child is thinking, “Another lovely night here on this peaceful world, where nothing can possibly go wrong thanks to the wise security policies of General Bail Organa, who has anticipated and prepared for all possible threat sources, and oh hey, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that small moon before.”
And meanwhile up on the Death Star, the dude in the pointy helmet is pulling the lever that goes VZZZZZZZZZZZZZWHA.
You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. You make 100 percent of the shots you don’t miss. That’s a little thing called analytics.
Gio van Bronckhorst. Thirty-five years old, playing at left back. Actually playing in the second-to-last match of his career. A defender, not someone usually seen as a goal threat. A guy who’s scored just five times in 104 previous matches for the Netherlands.
It’s about to be six.
Absolutely out of nowhere, Van Bronckhorst takes the shot.
Saying he “takes” the shot is a weak way of describing what he does to the shot. He takes the shot the way Julius Caesar took democracy. He takes the shot the way Miss Piggy took Manhattan.
The ball goes Death Star, lasering diagonally across the pitch, toward the far post, just VZZZZZZZZZZZZZWHA. It flies by like nine guys, and Muslera flings his body sideways to get the tips of his fingers to it, and KPRRRRRRRRRAH, a million voices cry out in terror and are suddenly silenced, and the ball slams off the far post, the ball ricochets into the net, and where Muslera used to be, where Uruguay used to be, is a void in the heart of the galaxy.
I’m kidding. Obviously. He’s fine, Muslera. Still playing, actually. In Turkey, for Galatasaray. Uruguay’s OK, too.
The goal is so sudden that the English commentator John Helm exclaims, “And of all people, Giovanni van Bronckhorst!” Mastering his surprise, he then describes the shot, correctly, as “an absolute snorter.”
An. Absolute. Snorter.
Astute readers of this series—and if you read this series, you’re astute by definition—may have noticed that we normally open with an intro of some kind. Maybe a little anecdote. Maybe a story that segues into another story. We like to build up to the moment we’re talking about. It’s about savoring the journey.
But not today, friends. Today, we start with the goal. Because skipping the build-up is what this moment is all about.
2. In Which My Dental Hygienist Destroys the Very Concept of My Podcast
We are here today to celebrate the long-range bomb. Also known as the long-distance screamer. Also known as the WHAT HOW OH MY DID THAT REALLY JUST HAPPEN.
Here are two things that are true. Thing one: I love the game of soccer. Thing two: I’m here to rhapsodize over the kind of shot that makes the game of soccer look fussy and unnecessary.
Because the taker of the long-range bomb does not have time for the game of soccer. They don’t have patience for intricate passing and manipulation of angles and space. You want me to … pass the ball … to you? Really? You want to patiently work it through the defense?
Hey, nerd, go back to nerd school. I’m knocking it in from here. Mom, get the car.
This is not a soccer essay, this is a Capri-Sun acceleration device.
What is it about the long-range bomb that makes it so irresistible?
I went to the dentist the other day. I went in for a cleaning, and my dental hygienist immediately started bagging on the whole concept of this series.
My dental hygienist is this dude who—well, he’s super into sports. And he’s the rare sports fan who enjoys making free with his opinions. We talk. Or rather, he talks, mostly to explain to me why I’m wrong about everything I write or say or embody through my very existence, and I try to defend myself as best I can with his fist in my mouth. It’s like a scene from a Hanya Yanagihara novel.
Anyway, the other day, I’m in there, and he asks what I’ve been up to, and I say, Well, I’ve got this new series of podcasts and essays about the men’s World Cup, and I tell him what it’s about. And he gets out the, like, giant whirring concrete polisher—you know, the machine they use to buff the floors of NBA courts—and shoves it into my mouth, and he goes, “That’s a terrible idea for a podcast.”
And I go, “WHRSH WRNG MRF MFF?”
And he goes, “What’s the point of talking about soccer goals on a podcast where you can’t see the goals? I want to see the goals. Everybody wants to see the goals. Just talking about the goals is a lot of blah blah blah.”
So I counter that argument, very reasonably I think, by saying, “MKRR SHMRF ZHR SHRNG ESH.”
And the hygienist rudely interrupts me, even though I’m clearly in the middle of a thought, and says, “I mean what are you gonna do, describe the goals with words?”
Thankfully he takes his hand out of my mouth so I can spit out the NBA floor polish, and I exclaim, with maximum indignation—with enormous dignity, even though I’m reclining in the dentist’s chair—with a kind of majesty, I say, “But I’m a writer! I use words to describe things on a regular basis!”
And he kind of rolls his eyes under his cleaning visor and goes, “YouTube dot com. Ever heard of it?”
No, actually. I live in a medieval library and I write the scripts for this podcast on parchment with a quill pen.
The point is, it was not until right this second that I truly felt the justice of my dental hygienist’s critique. Because what I desperately want to do right now is play you a video montage of just a bunch of wicked long-range bombs, just one after another, BAM BAM BAM. Maybe a nice beat underneath, or, like, a heavy-metal guitar?
You know the kind of video I mean. You want to stand up and salute the kind of video I mean. And what I’ve got instead—thank you, dentistry—are words.
Words. Useful little guys in some situations! A little challenged when it comes to raw speed.
I’d be like, “The grass on the pitch that summer’s day in Copenhagen was the color of soft moss clinging to the cheek of the statue of Hans Christian Andersen at the celebrated gardens of Rosenborg Castle,” and by the time I’d gotten one sentence out the video would have blown through nine long-distance goals in real time. When it comes to the long-range bomb, a gorgeously crafted paragraph is very SHMRF MRF MR SHRMFNG RVR RRHH.
We’re gonna do the best we can. There is a question hanging over this essay like a moon that isn’t a moon. The question is, What is it about the long-range bomb that makes the long-range bomb so delightful? What makes it feel so magnificently radical?
Now normally, we like to explore questions before we answer them. Not today. Today, in the spirit of the long-range bomb, I’m jumping right to the answer. Me, with the ball 50 yards out …
The long-range bomb feels so magnificently radical because it upends everything we think we know—everything we expect—about beautiful soccer.
3. Beautiful Soccer
Beautiful soccer is supposed to be about minimizing chaos. Soccer, in its essence, is a chaotic business. Think about how many times, when you’re watching different sports, something you see makes you want to kind of click your tongue and murmur, “Oh, whoops.”
The number is way higher, I think, in soccer than in any other game. An NFL game lasts two weeks, and you still go, “Oh, whoops,” 10 times as often in soccer as in American football. Players mishit passes: oh, whoops. The ball boings 40 yards while everyone scrambles after it: whoops. Two players crash into each other—whoops—and fall to the ground clutching body parts that are miraculously cured the second the referee stops looking at them.
I’m convinced, by the way, that nothing in medical science has more power to heal than a soccer referee looking in a different direction. The next time there’s a pandemic, I’m going to demand that the CDC put Pierluigi Collina on the back of a truck and drive him around so he can not look at everybody.
Whoops. It’s a word, speaking of words, that burbles up constantly in a soccer game. I mean no disrespect, or anyway not that much disrespect, to the game of soccer when I say that half of any soccer game basically happens by accident.
So what looks beautiful to us, when we watch soccer, are the moments that don’t look like they happen by accident. The moments when a pattern emerges. When a player, or a team, manages to realize a deliberate intention over and against the buffeting current of entropy always threatening to scramble the game.
Complex passing. Long, graceful runs. Control. Anticipation. Finesse. Teamwork. The non-whoops moments. The anti-whoops moments.
Then here comes the long-range bomb. It’s the oh, whoops of goals! It’s like … if oh, whoops were a movie. A family comedy. About, let’s say, a rich family that lives in a big city. And they’re all miserable, even though they have crown molding, and a picture-perfect, Instagram-optimized kitchen.
The long-range bomb is like the unwanted guest who comes to stay with them from the country, and at first it drives them crazy, but then it ends up solving all their problems and uniting the neighborhood. The long-range bomb is to chaos what Paddington Bear is to the Brown family.
Yes, I said it. No, they did not give me laughing gas at the dentist.
The long-range bomb is my laughing gas.
Key trait no. 1 of the long-range bomb: It’s surprising. If a bear showed up at your house in a raincoat and boots, and asked you in English for some marmalade, you would flip your hat, and the long-range bomb essentially does just that.
Consider Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s bomb against Uruguay. Soccer is unpredictable in almost every way, but one of the few ways in which it is very predictable is that aging defenders do not toss bull’s-eye darts into the goal from a distance of a third of the pitch. Highlight videos might make you think it happens all the time. It does not.
It’s like seeing lightning hit the ground right in front of you. When it happens, it comes out of nowhere. You’re sitting in the crowd. Things are rolling along as usual. Then you realize something amazing might be happening, and before you’ve even processed that thought, something amazing has already happened.
One minute the world is ticking along on its axis. The next minute the world is jumping a ravine in a monster truck while its axis plays air guitar.
“Surprise.” There’s another word that’s fun to think about in a soccer context.
It’s odd, but when you consider it, surprise has a really weird relationship with big moments in sports.
I mean, there’s always something surprising about any display of incredible athletic talent. And pivotal moments in games are often surprising by their very nature. But I think that, for me, the moments in sports that feel the most magical or the most beautiful are the ones that trick you out of feeling surprised. Because those are the ones that quiet down the chaos.
Great athletes, when they’re fully in control of what they’re doing, seem to excite some weird human response by which you almost share in some of their senses. You watch Leo Messi with the ball, and you kind of see things through his eyes as the play develops. You react the way he does. You feel your imaginary ghost body shifting its balance and pivoting while he cuts and spins and runs.
It’s as if he sees what’s going to happen before it happens, and because he sees it, you sort of see it too. So what you’re watching may be improbable—it may be stunning—but it’s not surprising, not completely, because the act itself showed you a little sliver of the future.
For the long-range bomb, there is no future. There’s barely a present!
I saw someone wearing a T-shirt once, in Moscow, that said “The Future Is Your Feelings.” Kind of a wise quote, if you think about it? After the long-range bomb has done its job, your feelings are the only things left.
Thirty-six years before Van Bronckhorst’s goal, in the 1974 World Cup, West Germany had this defender called Paul Breitner. I’ve always gotten a kick out of Paul Breitner. He had this big beard and long curly hair that he wore in a sort of puffy halo. Looked like a head of broccoli, if broccoli were a gangly white guy who stayed up all night smoking pot and reading Carlos Castaneda.
Germans used to call him “Der Afro.” It could probably be worse, but I don’t see how.
Anyway, Breitner was famously a leftist radical for a while. Used to show up to training carrying a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book, that sort of thing. A rebel. A firebrand. An idealist. Then one day he was like, “Hmm, you know what I also love? Money.” So he signed with Real Madrid and started buying expensive cars and houses. Ended up shaving off his beard as a paid promotional stunt for a cosmetics company.
And the ’60s truly died that day in the late spring of 1982.
Anyway, in 1974, when he still had the beard, Breitner scored not one but two absolutely outrageous long-range bombs in World Cup games. Two in one World Cup. Just an incredible feat of individual audacity for someone whose political philosophy, like most soccer tactics, revolved around collectivism. It was the soccer equivalent of Leon Trotsky starring in a McRib commercial.
Paul Breitner did star in a McDonald’s commercial, actually. Something called the “Soccer Hero Beef McMenü.” That’s Menü, with an umlaut over the u? Soccer Hero Beef McMenü.
Life is very strange.
Against Chile, in the opening round, Breitner gets the ball on the right side of the pitch, just a stupid long way from the goal, absolutely no reason anyone would take this shot, and BAM, he crushes it, diagonally toward the top left corner of the goal, so hard that when the goalkeeper jumps up to try to block it he looks like a marionette whose string just got caught in a jet engine. Probably feels like that, too. Shocking goal.
In the second group stage—they used to do two group stages then; consider yourself lucky if you ever love anything as intensely as FIFA loves a round robin—in the second group stage, West Germany versus Yugoslavia, Breitner scores an even better long-range bomb. Got the ball in the middle of the pitch, outside the area, dribbled by a defender, then BLAMMO—top left corner again, goalkeeper sucked into the jet engine again, we’ve seen this movie before. Sequel’s still shocking.
West Germany goes on to win the ’74 World Cup. Breitner scores again in the final. That goal’s just a penalty.
The point is, when Breitner scored the second long-range bomb, only 12 days had passed since he scored the first one. He had a history of doing it! There was an established pattern. And the second one felt every bit as random and sudden as the first.
That’s key trait no. 1 of the long-range bomb. The first way it turns beautiful soccer inside out: surprise.
5. The Misfits
Key trait no. 2 of the long-range bomb. Actually, does it seem to you like I’m saying the words “long-range bomb” a freakish number of times? Does to me. We need something else to call this genre of goal. We need an abbreviation.
I’ve spent a lot of time, as I’ve been immersed in the universe of long-range, low-probability goals, deliberating over the question of a nickname.
The problem is, we can’t just fall back on the acronym. We can’t use LRB, for two very good reasons.
Reason no. 1, too obvious. Reason no. 2, disrespectful to the London Review of Books. Story of my life!
But look. After thinking about it some more, I think it’s OK, for the rest of this essay, if we abbreviate the long-range bomb as “the LRB.” Also for two reasons.
A, the LRB isn’t afraid of being obvious. That’s why it works!
B, with all respect to the London Review of Books, the LRB also suggests direct contact with the fount of artistic inspiration. Hm maybe I’ll sit down and compose a little poem today … OH SHIT DID I JUST WRITE WORDSWORTH’S IMMORTALITY ODE?? YES I DID.
And that’s the story—the miraculous, the incredible story—that plays out every time one of these shots goes in.
Key trait no. 2 of the LRB. I seem to like listing things numerically today.
Thirty-seven reasons I like listing things numerically. I’m kidding! There are only 34 reasons.
Key trait no. 2. The LRB is scored by players you don’t expect.
Now, this one is not a universal rule. Unlike the LRB itself, it’s not hard and fast. Elite attacking players do score LRBs. Lionel Messi will sometimes bonk one in from a good way out. Steven Gerrard, back in the day, used to specialize in just moronic, just absolutely idiotic shots, in “you know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna sell an NFT of a purple monkey and become a billionaire”–type shots, wildly improbable shots that would somehow feel dramatically foreordained when they went in. I never knew how he did that. It’s a weird gift.
Steven Gerrard was incredible at two things. Thing alpha: making 40-yard goals feel like the soprano aria in a Verdi opera. Thing beta: sniffing slightly in a very unimpressed way while he looked at something. Like, imagine Steven Gerrard looking at a sandwich someone dropped on the ground. He’d be like, [tiny annoyed sniff].
Just a legitimate genius of mild nose-crinkling.
Attacking players do score LRBs. But I would argue that the LRB’s purest and most satisfying form is the 45-yard goal by a defender, or maybe a defensive midfielder. The guys who don’t normally play the glory part. The guys who spend their team’s attacking possessions lurking back by the halfway line on cleanup duty.
The LRB, as a genre, truly belongs to those guys. And there’s a reason for that.
Think about the technique of shooting a soccer ball. There’s an alchemy to it. How to plant your standing foot. How to follow through with your instep versus your laces. How to work in a little backlift to get the ball away quickly. How to control for spin, for angle, for placement. All the calculations great goal scorers do every time they make contact.
To hit an LRB, though? You just let it rip. It’s not a Steph Curry situation in which the technique gets more sophisticated as the shot moves farther from the goal, because you can’t shoot a soccer ball very accurately from 40 yards away. It’s absurd to try. Which is why technically elite players do it only if there’s no better move.
But total randos? Total randos love the LRB for precisely the same reason.
To try for an LRB, all you need is a dream, some overdeveloped quad muscles, and a willingness to put your foot through the ball.
Consider Giovanni van Bronckhorst.
Van Bronckhorst was born in 1975 in Rotterdam, the home of the storied Dutch club Feyenoord, where he’d later star.
The son of an Indonesian Dutch father and an Indonesian mother of Moluccan descent, he was one of the first of a wave of players with Indonesian or Surinamese heritage to break through in Dutch soccer—there was Wilfred Bouma, John Heitinga, Nigel de Jong, etc.
Footnote one, see colonialism.
Colonialism keeps coming up in this series, have you noticed that? I guess maybe because it’s the defining force in modern international soccer (slash the contemporary world order). And every time colonialism comes up, I keep wondering: Who invented it?
I’m picturing a Portuguese count called, like, Fernando Colonialism. Because the asshole who invented colonialism would definitely have named it after himself. Just like his best friend, Jeremiah Bitcoin.
Anyway. European soccer, like European economics, art, music, food, and literature, owes Fernando Colonialism a terrific debt.
Outstanding player, Giovanni van Bronckhorst. One of the best left backs of his generation for sure. Starred for Feyenoord, had a frustrating run at Arsenal under Arsène Wenger, and then went to Barcelona and became a mainstay of those super-fun and underrated Frank Rijkaard–era Barça teams with Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o and baby Messi. The Pep Guardiola–era Barcelona kind of crowds that team out of the historical record, but trust me, they were great.
Van Bronckhorst, in the locker room, was known as a quiet guy, a basically relaxed guy. Or maybe a better word is unflappable. He was not regularly flapped.
I remember once, four years before the LRB against Uruguay, during the 2006 World Cup, he got sent off in this rough match against Portugal. When I say “rough match,” I mean the match is now nicknamed “the Massacre of Nuremberg.” A record four red cards and 16 yellow cards in 90 minutes.
Anyway, Van Bronckhorst was one of the 600 guys to get sent off in that game. A few minutes after he left the pitch, the TV camera found him sitting on the sideline with the Portuguese player Deco, who’d also been sent off. They played together in Barcelona. They were friends! So they just sat and chatted while watching their teammates try to knock each other’s heads off.
That kind of player. Solidly unflappable. Not even a red card could really flap him all that much.
But he was never a killer. He was not the guy you’d look at and go, “The crowd’s waiting for Van Bronckhorst to take the game by the throat.” He didn’t score goals. It wasn’t his job to score goals. Not a guy with a lot of edge. It’s what I like about him. You look for quotes from Van Bronckhorst and the best ones are almost outrageously normal.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst on music: “I very much appreciate the new Coldplay album called Mylo Xyloto.”
Giovanni van Bronckhorst on music again: “My favorite female singer is Beyoncé.”
Giovanni van Bronckhorst on whether he has been very fortunate to have played under wonderful coaches and leaders: “I have been very fortunate to have played under wonderful coaches and leaders.”
You get the idea. Solid dude.
Look, not everyone has to run around scoring show-offy overhead kicks and babbling about imaginary counts named Ferdinand who invented toxic geopolitical systems. Some people sleep at night.
Van Bronckhorst became the captain of the Dutch national team. But by 2010, at the World Cup in South Africa, he was at the very end of his career. He was old. He’d already announced he was retiring after the tournament.
So for a player of this description—unflashy, reliable, appreciative of the emotional yet mellow song stylings of the popular tunesmith Chris Martin—for that guy to just thunderbolt in an absolute snorter like this in the biggest game of his career. Because remember, this was a World Cup semifinal. This was for the right to play for the championship of the universe, since as far as we know no aliens play soccer.
Aliens like tennis. Don’t ask me how I know.
For him to score in that game, in those circumstances, under those figurative lights. Shocking.
And again, it reverses, or inverts, what we think we want from high-level soccer.
We think we want Kylian Mbappé. We think we want Pelé. We think we want the glamour squad, the brightest stars in the game—that we want to see them score goals. And a lot of the time, we do want that. But to see a—comparatively speaking—regular schmoe step up and crush, not the easiest shot in the game, but the hardest?
Turns out when it happens, we feel a joy so sudden and intense that it’s like someone’s setting off tiny fireworks inside our chests.
Yeah. Turns out we sometimes want that, too.
So here’s another word for you, if we’re still keeping track of words. The word is misfit. The LRB is a goal of misfits. It’s the peak moment of players who are not supposed to have, who are not supposed to enjoy, peak moments.
And hey, I don’t know you. Maybe in your own life you see yourself as Cristiano Ronaldo. Maybe you wake up in the morning already basking in the radiance of your own confident superstardom.
But for most of us, most of the time? Most of us go through our days with the high-wire desperation of Harry Maguire at Manchester United and the awkward flailing of Peter Crouch at everywhere. We’re worried about our mistakes. We’re worried about our parking tickets. We’re worried we have food in our teeth. There’s a 30 percent chance we’re calling this very nice person we just met by the wrong name.
For most of us, a good day is one where we get to the end without anything terrible going wrong. And for all of us who are not Cristiano Ronaldo, the LRB is the goal that makes us feel like maybe there’s hope for us after all.
Is this corny? Is this a corny thing to say? I don’t care. It’s true. We buy the Mo Salah jersey. We fantasize about being Salah. But when some heavy-footed center back off the bench scores an LRB? That’s the moment when we see, or want to see, ourselves.
6. Say You Want a Revolution
The third key trait of the long-range bomb is that it completely changes the equilibrium of a match.
Again, not a hard-and-fast rule. It’s obviously possible for an LRB to happen in the 87th minute of a 6-0 blowout.
But the best and most memorable LRBs are the ones that knock a game of soccer on its rear. Reality looks different, feels different, on either side of a classic LRB.
Van Bronckhorst’s goal came in the 18th minute of that match against Uruguay, and it clearly announced that the Dutch were not kidding around. It announced that the Uruguayans were going to have to chase the game for 90 minutes. It broke the match open and ended up being the difference in a 3-2 Netherlands win. The Dutch went on to lose to Spain in the final.
But in that semifinal match. This was a Dutch team that had been getting attention for being more defensive-minded than Dutch teams normally are. Historically, Dutch teams had been known for creative, free-flowing soccer. But in 2010, they were starting to be known for kicking their opponents in the heart—and I say that because literally, in the final, Nigel de Jong kicked the Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso in the heart.
Van Bronckhorst’s LRB announced that for one night at least, this team was going to be about putting the ball through the net.
The classic LRB divides a match into parts. It’s like the assassination of an emperor, or a trip to the dentist before lunch. It creates a before and an after.
I remember, in 2007, watching Scotland play France at the Parc des Princes in Paris. This wasn’t even a real World Cup match. It took place during European Championship qualifying. I don’t know if it wasn’t on TV in America, or if I was just too broke to afford whatever channel it was on. Probably both, in 2007. But either way, I watched the game on some tiny, pixelated peer-streaming site on my computer. Remember those sites? You could pipe in, like, the Chinese over-the-air broadcast and follow the match, even though you couldn’t understand the commentary and the picture cut out every five to seven seconds?
Some of the most intense sports-viewing experiences of my life took place on those sites. My lasting memory of George W. Bush’s whole second term is waking up at six in the morning, making a cup of tea, and blearily violating international copyright law so I could watch, like, Tottenham versus Portsmouth on ESPN Malaysia.
I loved it so much.
2007. Three years before Van Bronckhorst’s goal. France versus Scotland.
Scotland, as you’d guess, is a massive underdog in the game. France was a World Cup finalist one year earlier, and they’re playing at home in front of tens of thousands of their fans. And Scottish soccer is great in its own way, but it’s in that very specific way where a lot of their players are named Jimmy. Not a recipe for global domination.
It’s a cagey match. Nil-nil at halftime. In the 64th minute, the Scottish goalkeeper launches a goal kick the length of the pitch. It finds the Scottish forward James McFadden about 35 yards out from the French goal. McFadden has his back to the goal. He controls the ball with his foot. He spins around, takes a touch, and then suddenly launches this comically audacious shot toward the top left corner. And it goes in!
This is not so much the Paddington of goals as the jail sequence from Paddington 2 of goals. McFadden just gambled that he could make Knuckles McGinty fall in love with orange marmalade … and it worked!
The shock in the announcer’s voice is the sound of the balloon lifting off above the prison.
I know I jumped out of my chair. I’m pretty sure I threw my teacup at the wall. The match was upside down. Scotland leading 1-0.
And now everything felt completely different. Before and after.
For the next half hour, I watched through my fingers as France launched an all-out assault on the Scottish goal. Scotland desperately defending.
I haven’t rewatched the match. I don’t think I ever want to rewatch the match. I just want to keep my memory of it. But I remember Scottish players making last-ditch tackles. Last-second saves. Hopeless scrambles at the goalmouth. And somehow, the underdogs managed to keep France from scoring.
No exaggeration, I was shaking by the end of that game. Unbelievable.
And again, that was World Cup qualifying. Now imagine how it feels when an LRB transforms the character of a match in the actual World Cup. In a regular soccer game, a long-range bomb is surprising, impressive, really cool. When the stakes get higher, its effects get bigger. It becomes a seismic event.
When I rewatched Van Bronckhorst’s goal a few days ago, I was amazed that the camera stayed steady when the ball struck the crossbar—I remember it rocking back and forth like an earthquake had hit the stadium.
So there’s another word for you, if we’re still doing words. Revolutionize. The best LRBs revolutionize matches. They revolutionize tournaments. In one shocking, almost violent instant, like a promo for the season finale of some long-running network show, they announce, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING.
7. Senseless Acts of Beauty
I said before that we associate beautiful soccer with players fully realizing their intentions over and against the chaos and confusion of the game. If that’s true, then there’s a way in which the LRB might be the highest form of the soccer goal.
Think about it. It’s a goal that collapses the whole distinction between meaning to do something and doing it by accident. Did the player who scored it mean to score it? Yes. Could he do it again? Probably not in an empty stadium with no defenders present.
Is there an element of randomness to the LRB? Absolutely. It’s a bad bet. It’s a low-probability play. It’s also spectacularly successful. It’s dumb luck as the ultimate expression of elite skill.
All I know, honestly, is that I love it. I love it. We come to soccer for a lot of reasons. Sometimes, maybe, we come to soccer to see a bad bet pay off. It’s important to be reminded that an unflashy defender can score a flashy goal. A carrot can end up as the title ingredient in a tasty cake. A talking bear can escape from jail in a hot-air balloon. You and I can go to a party and say the perfect thing, the least awkward thing, the thing that makes everyone around us think, I’d like to be friends with that person.
You can win. There’s hope.
Maybe a guy with a newly gleaming smile can even release a series about soccer goals in a language-based medium and still come out OK. That’s probably a stretch. But when I think about Giovanni van Bronckhorst scoring that goal, I feel like we have a chance.
One second after it happens, I feel that more things are possible than were possible one second before.