There are so many ways for a soccer ball not to go into the back of the net. It can trickle wide left or right; it can sky yards over the frame; it can spike off two different posts; it can jump upward or downward or straight backward off the crossbar; it can be deflected by a defender; sometimes, it can be caught by the keeper right out of the air. In soccer, more than most other sports, there’s no guarantee that a scoring opportunity or five or 10 will yield an actual tangible advantage. So, as much as is made of the beautiful goal—a Nacer Chadli tap-in on the back end of a team flow-state run down the field or a cyclonic Cristiano Ronaldo free kick—every goal is important.
Harry Kane, the striker and English captain, has scored six goals so far over the course of this World Cup. He’s the leader in the race for the Golden Boot, and will likely win the award barring an offensive explosion from his closest active competitors, Romelu Lukaku of Belgium (four goals) or Kylian Mbappé of France (three goals). None of Kane’s goals have been particularly nice to look at; only one has been created from open play. Three have come from the penalty spot. Two have come on second-chance shots after a corner kick. The open-play goal? It seemed to come entirely by accident when a Ruben Loftus-Cheek shot jumped off Kane’s heel and plopped into the net in England’s group-stage match against Panama. Kane was turned away from the ball, jogging out of the box to clear space for his attacking teammates, when the goal, the third of a hat trick, fell onto his foot. It all seemed even sillier when considering the score: The goal increased England’s lead to 6-0.
Despite their lack of artistry, Kane’s goals have been consequential, critical, for England. Kane’s two conversions were decisive in a 2-1 win over Tunisia in the group stage, and one of his penalties gave England a 1-0 lead against Colombia in the round of 16 (he also converted England’s first penalty in the 4-3 shootout win). And while few goals come easier than penalties, it should be remembered that even the best players fumble occasionally. It’s not meaningless that Kane hasn’t.
Yet, this all has an element of comedy to it. Kane is a caricature of a striker, humorously thirsty for goals. He sat on the sideline during the final group-stage game against Belgium, a match in which neither side played their best lineup or seemed to want a win, his legs twitching with lust to come onto the pitch to tally more scores. His brutal, unglamorous efficiency only amplifies his desire; he needs to score the way that Scrat needs acorns and Pooh needs honey, and it doesn’t matter how it happens. Nick Young’s right arm was meant only for buckets, but all of Harry Kane is only for goals.
The mentality is the same in his duties for his club: This past Premier League season, Kane finished second in the race for the division’s Golden Boot, notching 30 goals for Tottenham but finishing two short of Liverpool’s superstar forward, Mo Salah.
In April, trailing Salah by five scores, Kane traveled with Tottenham to face Stoke City with the Golden Boot on his mind. There, with the score tied at one in the 63rd minute, Kane’s teammate, midfielder Christian Eriksen, swung a free kick into the box where it bounced inside the six and into the back of the net. Eriksen was awarded the goal, but Kane believed the goal to be his. He’d leaped near the curling ball an instant before it passed the Stoke keeper and did … something, supposedly. “It’s my goal for sure,” Kane told Sky Sports after the game. “It flicked off my shoulder and went in. I swear that’s mine. It was just off my shoulder. I don’t care, it’s my goal.” Eventually he went even further, declaring: “I swear on my daughter’s life that I touched the ball.”
After the game, Tottenham launched an appeal on Kane’s behalf, eventually getting him credit for the goal. Eriksen, verbally rolling his eyes into the back of his head, said, “I don’t know. He celebrated like it was his goal so I expect he touched it. I’ll take the assist. That’s fine.”
Afterward, the jokes came all too easily. The internet Photoshopped Kane into images of various goals, inserting his diving body into images of midflight penalties and stamping his face on Diego Maradona’s Hand of God goal. The point being: Harry Kane thinks every goal belongs to Harry Kane.
Of course, when you look at the whole picture, Kane’s need to have goals (not score, have) isn’t the first thing you’d caricature about him. The way he talks about soccer has a Charles Poole-ian mechanical coating; the way that his words seem to catch in his throat and dribble out of his mouth is as letterman-jacket-jock speak as one could expect from a London native; the way his mouth, even mid-smile, turns frownward, showing his top row of teeth, is comically English. In the same vein: his name is Harry Fucking Kane.
But all of this is made relevant by the goals, and all of it is enhanced by their terse nature (Kane is one goal from breaking Gary Lineker’s record for England in a single World Cup, and is Tottenham’s all-time leading Premier League goal scorer). It can be tempting to say that a player like Kane is luckier than he is brilliant, a player who happens to be in the right place at the right times and play simple touches for maximum rewards. But if somebody is able to snag something rare and desirable enough, it’s unlikely that they’re really just lucky.
“He was a very competent goalkeeper, but his real desire was to score goals,” said one of Kane’s youth coaches. “I am absolutely convinced that is the reason why he is such a clinical striker—he intuitively knows what the goalkeeper doesn’t like.”
There is a skill to being Harry Kane, certainly: He’s a dominant finisher with a surgical touch. It’s just not always so easy for an outsider to see what makes defenders lose track of him in a crowded box or what makes his blasts so deadly. What is easy to see is his goofy grin and his desire to score goals, even those that are accidental or ugly.
England have been more than Kane, and that’s part of why the team has enjoyed their deepest run at a World Cup in nearly 30 years. Kane has been one of the most fouled players in the tournament. He was battered and grabbed by defenders throughout the first two knockout rounds, but he still played insistently, fighting through contact and searching for chances. Against Colombia, it paid off when he scored the aforementioned penalties. Pep Guardiola, manager at Manchester City, once dismissively referred to Tottenham as the “Harry Kane team.” Perhaps it would be tempting to give England that same designation, and if it were accurate, the Three Lions probably wouldn’t be playing in the semifinals of this World Cup. But against Sweden in the quarterfinal round, Kane didn’t score, and England still won 2-0.
As England attempts to make football come home, citizens are losing their shit. There are plenty of things to savor: Gareth Southgate is pragmatic and a crop of young, dynamic English stars are coming into their own, and amid it all, Kane is being engraved by passionate fans onto five-pound notes. This World Cup for England is all absurd and inspiring and slightly unaware and not totally unserious, just like Harry Kane.