This World Cup is one for the record books. Its group stage has yielded 136 goals at a dizzying rate of almost three per game. They’ve come from the spot, the head, the foot, the knee, the chest, from impossible angles and lethally close range. But which goals from the group stage in Brazil have earned a spot in the annals? We asked our Goal Posts contributors, who were happy to provide nominations.
ALEX MASSIE: I suppose it's not especially original or adventurous or even clever to nominate a goal by the world's best footballer. Be that as it may, I select Lionel Messi's second against Nigeria. Most goals scored directly from a free kick are beautiful things, but it's some time since I can recall seeing one as precious as Messi's strike.
It was one of those moments in which you enjoy the curious experience of seeming simultaneously to witness a goal in real time and in slow motion replay. It wasn't lashed into the net, nor was it even clipped over the wall. Instead it seemed to be feathered towards, and into, the goal. A beautiful expression of pure technique and skill.
A moment made even more memorable when, as the players returned to the field for the second half, Victor Enyeama ruffled Messi's hair and smiled and laughed as though to say, "Too good, wee man, too good." But then that is the point of Lionel Messi, isn't it? He brings joy to every game he touches and sometimes you suspect even his vanquished opponents can feel that joy too.
KEVIN ALEXANDER: My vote is for Australian Tim Cahill's smashed volley versus the Netherlands. Instant classic. To be able to take a ball coming in the air from 40 yards over your shoulder, hit it one time with your off foot with such violence and accuracy, and be 34 years old is a rare thing to behold. It's like seeing a whale surface under a white rainbow during a green flash.
FERNANDO VILA-RODRIGUEZ: James Rodriguez's goal for Colombia against the Japanese was my favorite goal of the tournament so far. It was such an overwhelming display of superiority over the hapless defender, turning him completely around and then making him fall to the ground. Then he basically mocked the keeper with the subtle lob over his head. It was a spectacular goal that had the added bonus of embarrassing his opponent. In NBA terms, he "posterized" them.
LEON KRAUZE: I'll take Arjen Robben's epic run for the Netherlands against Spain. Blind's pass was gorgeous in itself but… Robben! There was a beautiful anger in the way he accelerated and an even more beautiful cruelty in the deliberate way he broke Casillas and then the much-humiliated (by Robben, in this match) Ramos. It was a goal four years in the making, a true work of footballing revenge and, yes, art.
LAURENT DUBOIS: I have a slightly odd response to this, which is that the goal I probably enjoyed the most was a pointless one: the one that was scored by Benzema a second after the final time whistle blew in France vs. Switzerland. He celebrated, smilingly, anyway, and it was the moment I suddenly felt a healed confidence in the French team. The goal itself was straightforward but beautiful: a great cross and then a curving ball from long distance into the net. But the context, and the joy and humor they took in the slight absurdity of scoring so nice just after the whistle blew, made me smile.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Messi's first goal against Bosnia-Herzegovina. If it doesn't look like the best goal in the tournament, it is because we have seen him do this so often. He makes us expect the sublime, and we now consider it normal. Cahill's volley, van Persie's header—they are extraordinary. Messi's quick burst of speed in the teeth of the defense, the power and precision of the shot in mid-stride, it only looks ordinary because he makes it so.
ELAINE TENG: Van Persie, James Rodriguez, and Tim Cahill are all great, but my vote is for Miroslav Klose's goal for Germany against Ghana. To score your 15th World Cup goal is fantastic in any circumstance, but he did it within two minutes of coming on as a substitute, with his team down 2-1 in a must-win game. The ball came to him after a Kroos corner met with Höwedes' head, and he was at exactly the right place at the right time to poke it in. It embodied the predatory instinct that has defined his long career, and to retain that kind of hunger, timing, and positional sense at 36 years of age, in your fourth World Cup, is really something special. (And then he did the signature back flip!)
LUKE DEMPSEY: I think it was Eric Cantona who said only important goals are truly beautiful. So following his rubric, my probably unfashionable choice is Haris Seferovic, for Switzerland against Ecuador, in the first game of unsexy Group E.
The game was tied; it had been a poor match, amidst a sea of semi-perfect ones. Deep into added time, for Ecuador, Michael Arroyo found himself with a relatively simple chance to win the game at the death, but with "too much sauce," according to Jaime Moreno on the commentary. Arroyo dallies, and gets dispossessed in the Switzerland box. These unloveable Europeans, adrift in the the land of South American samba soccer, shift the ball up field—a move featuring the best piece of refereeing so far, a brilliant play-on after a clear foul. The ball eventually gets whipped in to the near post. Seferovic—originally a Bosnian who emigrated with his family to the neutral country for whom he now plays—gets a step on the defender (he may have been a pectoral offside, which only adds to the legend), wraps his left foot around the ball, and boom: from possibly losing 2-1, to actually winning by the same score, all in the blink of a commentator’s shout. As the ball ripples the top of the net, the time on the clock is 92:37, some 23 seconds from the end of added time. Everyone goes crazy in this craziest of tournaments. It was a goal that gave the Swiss the advantage in boring Group E; and led, ultimately, the Swiss to the knockout rounds. Expect them to go far (Greece 2008 in the Euros, anyone?). An important and dramatic goal, after a brilliant move, featuring end-to-end stuff, great refereeing, and a superb finish. Even Ottmar Hitzfeld smiled. Therefore, a beautiful goal.
JAMES BURNETT: I share Rabih's appreciation for that first Messi goal, that final, deft, decisive touch before he strikes it. But for variety's sake I'll cast my vote for Brazil's third against Cameroon. Not for the goal itself, which I don't even remember, but for the spinning, no-look pass from Neymar (I have watched the clip a dozen times and still can't figure out when exactly he releases the ball as he's going round) that set up the sequence of one-touches that led, as you immediately knew it would, to the score. My goodness.
HOWARD WOLFSON: Van Persie had options for his goal for the Netherlands against Spain. He could have kicked the ball on the fly. He could have trapped it and then shot. Instead he made a split second decision to do the impossible, gorgeous thing and launch himself head first at the ball, the goal, and immortality. It set a tone for the match that the World Champions could be beaten and an early standard for the entire tournament.
SHAJ MATHEW: I have a soft spot for the goals in this tournament that weren't quite. Shots cleared off the line. Ambitious efforts that inevitably whirr past the crossbar. Wayward strikes that should never have been taken. There's more potential in a missed shot than a scored goal—a goal is a goal, there is no ambiguity, but a miss creates counterfactuals: What if Michael Bradley hadn't missed a wide-open net? I think, maybe, there's more to missing a goal than actually scoring one. A miss isn't more beautiful than a goal, or more aesthetically pleasing—obviously, misses are often excruciatingly painful and very ugly—but a miss is more open-ended: a miss is a what-if, an invitation to persevere twinned with the pain of the immediate past.