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The Anatomy of a Goal: How Error Leads to Perfection

Opportunity for a goalscorer is a cannibal act

Ian Walton Getty Images Sport

An average goalscorer lives off of the mistakes of others, rather obvious mistakes like a slip by a defender, a weak attempt at a save by a goalkeeper, a panicked miskick that by fortune finds the forward’s foot. But the thrill of the goal and its relative rarity imbues the goal with the power to minimize rather obvious errors. We don’t tend to recall the miscontrolled pass that turned the ball over to the other team seconds before the vital goal was scored. It would be too much for the mind, which at its best seeks beauty and joy, not mistake and despair. Ninety percent of the glory of the game is the fruit of error. Football is the world’s game in part for this reason: the mistakes made during a game can be worth nothing or worth everything, can be wiped away as of no consequence by a mind in search of consequence or be worth, in the mind of the malevolent, taking a life. Opportunity for the average goal scorer is a cannibal act. What makes us human, that we fail, is what gives them life.

Great goalscorers score average goals, too, of course. But when the moment arrives, that moment to do the unthinkable, to bypass a physical law—that is when you get a glimpse not only into the physical marvel of these players, but also into how they read space and time. Much like when you read a great writer and gain an understanding of their sentences, what they do with incident and predicament, how they introduce a variation into a theme, so it is when we observe a great football player turn the physical—meters of space on a rectangle, centimeters of space between players, the telling spin of a ball moving through the air—into the emotional.

The Netherlands played Spain on Friday afternoon, with the score at one goal for Spain and none for Holland as the clock ticked down on the first half. Spain, as has been their style, looked to shepherd play, and subsequently the rest of the game, to its conclusion with its short passing game designed to keep the ball from the other team, tire them out from chasing the ball and then, if they opportunity presents itself, go for the kill in the spaces that those chasing tired legs and minds would eventually fail to cover.

Everything was going to plan: it was already 1-0 when Spain’s David Silva found such a space in the Dutch back line near the 40th minute of the game. Andrés Iniesta sent him through with a defense-splitting pass, and Silva only had Holland’s goalkeeper, the young Jasper Cillessen, to beat. Silva advanced with the ball at his feet, but so did Cillessen, and so Silva tried to no avail to lob the ball over the keeper’s head. Cillessen, although crouching, threw his large hands up and knocked Silva’s soft shot out of bounds. It was perfect technique by the keeper—stifling the attacking space, defending low, prepared for a shot up high—but Silva should have scored. Spain’s players, like their fans in the stadium in Salvador, held their hands up to their faces. What could have been. What should have been. It’s perhaps the most used face in football, a game of near misses and almost-should-have—an amalgamation of the see-no-evil-hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil faces. The clock ticked on to the end of the half, and despite Silva flubbing his lines the game for Spain, winners of the last World Cup and the last two European Championships, had a familiar feel to it.

Now, the Netherlands have the ball, barely a minute has passed since Silva’s chance. There has been hardly any action. Their left-back Daley Blind has the ball and is barely past the halfway line, inching rather harmlessly into Spanish territory. Neither Silva, still with his missed chance in his head, nor the Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso, seem bothered by this despite the fact that the success of Spain’s possession-style approach (a style taken directly from the Netherlands' traditional, and rather ironically here abandoned, style of play) is rooted in everyone pressuring the opponent when he has the ball, eating up his space, robbing him of the time to think, the opportunity to see his best options for a pass—enticing him into error. None of that happens here.

Alonso and Silva half jog to random spaces, hardly even noticing Blind, who looks up and is by himself in that no man’s land on the field where the touchline and halfway line meet, where players enter and exit the field often crossing themselves and asking for God’s grace or hoping over the touchline to ward off bad luck, neither Alonso nor Silva were up to much in the game and their movements betrayed their thoughts. Where Blind stood in no man’s land, he was basically defending himself, he was in a dead man’s corner, a Bermuda Triangle where attacking intentions go to die. Their job there was to pressure, to starve Blind of space, but the field was calm, no running was happening, all eleven players seemed to stand in their fixed positions like table football pieces. Blind looked up and saw at his one o’clock, some 50 yards ahead of him, his teammate Robin van Persie, goalscorer extraordinaire, the Netherlands' main threat, chaperoned on his right and his left by Spanish defenders. But the time Blind was afforded by Alonso and Silva allowed him to read a little bit more of the scene, like when you’re beginning to become convinced by a book.

The defenders close to van Persie weren’t really that close: to the striker’s right and left was that vital ether, a little bit of space, he was out of arm’s reach of both, if he were to start to sprint there would be no sly tug of the shoulder or shirt to slow him down. There was promise there, suddenly; if Blind’s liberty to read, this momentary room of his own, was an initial invisible mistake, here now was another. The hairline fracture had become a crack. But just as suddenly as it was seen, the crack became a break.

Another Spanish defender, Gerard Piqué, was following the other Dutch attacking threat, the mercurial Arjen Robben, who was drifting closer towards Blind, some 15 yards away from van Persie and, of vital importance here, another few yards forward towards Spain’s goal. Sensing danger here, and being significantly slower than Robben, Piqué anticipates a pass down the line to Robben, and before any pass is made begins to sprint towards his goal. Speed is the first terror: it forces you to react to what doesn’t yet exist. The back line of a defense must always try to be in a straight line: this way they know who is on and offsides, who is a threat and who is not; the last defender marks the end of the playable field and creates the reality of space. Suddenly, due to Piqué’s inopportune three or four steps, Spain’s back line is jagged. Space exists where it should not exist: yards of playable field behind van Persie unfurl toward the Spanish goal.

Van Persie feels it, Blind feels it: eye contact. Blind unleashes a diagonal pass into the air that, for the distance it has to travel, has no right to be as precise as it is—not to where van Persie was but to where he will be—van Persie had already started to run straight toward the goal. The ball and van Persie, nothing and no one else: the defenders, surprised by a combination of the audacity of the pass and that van Persie is somehow onside, have been left behind in the striker’s vapor trail. The same sloth that led Piqué to flinch at Robben’s appearance leaves Piqué with no chance to come across and provide cover. Spain had scored on a harsh penalty call from the spot on the other side of the field and now, as though spinning on the axis of that memory, the ball descended to meet van Persie near the Spanish penalty spot. You at times hear that a pass is filled with information, the English call it a telling pass—as van Persie approached the pass was head-high. Iker Casillas, the Spanish keeper, unsure of what to do with the pass as it...sort of…approached him, left his line; this has always been his greatest weakness.

The ball spins now at great speed, it gets heavy to the touch when it does, and stopping the ball with the chest in order to take a shot with his preferred left foot would give the defenders enough time to re-enter the play and Casillas’ strength in goal is still his ability to stop straight-on shots. The ball spun at a great speed, it gets heavy to the touch when it does, and it being head-high the head seems the way to go, but with that speed and the ball approaching from both behind him and from the side, van Persie charging forward but twisting to look behind him, the spin of the ball, that telling spin, hitting the ball with any power at all, the power and torque of the ball meeting the power and torque of the body, would produce an uncontrollable counter-spin, no control, no intention, a flailing stab at the opportunity.

He runs, the small mistakes that led to this moment behind him, already the flotsam of something the disaster to come. Then the ever-slight stutter step of the flashing feet to correct his position, find the balls of his feet and leans into a leap so that the ball finds the top of his head and cushions there for a fraction of a fraction of a second, the speed of the pass leaks from it, the spin stops and restarts, the ball leaps again this time from van Persie’s head, over Casillas, his arms frozen at his side his head arching back to watch the ball finish its sudden and yet slow curve over him, and van Persie now flies through the air, now van Persie falls to the floor flat as a plank, his eyes never leaving the ball.

New life. 1-1 Spain and Netherlands at the half. 1-5 for the Netherlands at the final whistle. If you haven’t yet seen images of the Flying Dutchman, you will. It will be the image of one of the greatest goals a World Cup has ever produced. But also the chronicle of a chain reaction of little fallible moments read to perfection.