What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Goals?


On Sports

The U.S.-Wales Men’s World Cup Match and Opening Ceremony in Doha, Qatar, on November 21, 2022. State Department photo by Ronny Przysucha, Public Domain.

Not long after Argentina lost in a stunning upset to Saudi Arabia and hardly anyone outside the losing country was crying, I read a new book, Dark Goals: How History’s Worst Tyrants Have Used and Abused the Game of Soccer, by the sports journalist Luciano Wernicke. Evita, I learned, once tried to fix a game between two Buenos Aires teams, Banfield and Racing, first by force of will and, when that failed, by offering a bribe to Racing’s goalkeeper: he could become mayor of his hometown. Of course, that kind of behavior is behind us (FIFA? Bribes? Are you kidding?), although government pressure and reward still hover on soccer’s periphery: Emmanuel Macron famously called Kylian Mbappé the best player in the current tournament, and urged him not to move from Paris Saint-Germain to Real Madrid, because, he said, “France needs you.” After the Saudi victory, a national holiday was declared in the oil-rich kingdom, all amusement parks were free, and citizens could enjoy their favorite rides for as long as they wished. In Qatar, outside interference of another kind was exposed when it came to light that those bouncing, joyful, muscle-bound, tattooed Qatar supporters in identical maroon T-shirts were actually faux fans imported from Lebanon and elsewhere, all-expenses-paid. They had been trained in patriotic Qatari chants. Meanwhile, the Ghana Football Association appealed to a higher power and urged two days of fasting and prayer nationwide to give its team the necessary boost. This sounds quite reasonable; there’s been an awful lot of skyward finger-pointing and prostrations of thanks by players after they score a goal. Someone’s deity is clearly playing a part. No one, to be clear, ever thanks God for a loss.

I’m going to abandon religion but stay on politics a little bit longer before we get to Richarlison’s stupendous scissor kick against Serbia, his matchless wonder goal against South Korea, and the rest of o jogo bonito. Early in the tournament seven European teams decided their captains would wear rainbow armbands in support of diversity and inclusion. This planned gesture of goodwill upset FIFA so much that it threatened to give out one yellow card per armband, which would certainly tip the balance unfavorably against teams whose players insisted on visibly supporting kindness, tolerance, and equality. The captains abandoned ship, but the Germans puckishly posed for a team picture with their hands over their mouths.

Speaking of which, a debate over nomenclature has emerged in the English-speaking part of the World Cup. During the U.S.A. v. England game, U.S. fans taunted their English counterparts by cheering, “It’s called SOCCER”—a witless banality that nevertheless has inspired and morphed into a popular Doritos ad in which Peyton Manning schools David Beckham. Or did the ad come first? The young, athletic U.S. team played really well; Christian Pulisic took his first steps toward sainthood; and the team drew but thoroughly deserved to win against a drab, pedestrian, unimaginative England. I was reminded of the time I saw the U.S.A. beat England 2–1 in a friendly at Foxboro Stadium a year before the 1994 World Cup. Toward the end of the game the small contingent of England fans began to chant, “We’re such shit it’s unbelievable.”

The commentary has been as sensational as you might imagine: In the first ten minutes of the showcase opening game between Qatar and Ecuador, Fox Sports lead play-by-play announcer, John Strong, noting that “this was a fistfight to start,” excitedly advised, “The ref must keep some sort of lid on this thing” when nothing remotely untoward had happened at all. The message was clear: Don’t worry, America, this sport is as down and dirty as a UFC cage fight! Fox Sports has also, unsurprisingly, sugarcoated the tournament and tried its best to ignore the politics, with little to no mention of the human rights issues and has elided, for example, the celebratory upheaval in the immigrant-heavy banlieues of Brussels after Morocco beat Belgium. In other parts of the world, the politics often come before the football. Even the British tabloid the Sun has sometimes foregrounded ugly issues, like the NO SURRENDER flag draped in the Serbian dressing room as an insult to Kosovo.

Flags were at the center of another controversy when the U.S. Soccer Federation, in a bumbling but well-meaning act of solidarity with oppressed women in Iran, foolishly messed on its website with the Iranian flag. The Iranians demanded that the U.S.A. be thrown out of the tournament, while the players and coaches of Team U.S.A. “distanced themselves” from their bureaucrats. Now let’s imagine what would have happened if the Iranians had messed with the U.S. flag.

Team U.S.A. went on to beat Iran 1–0 with a truly courageous goal from Christian Pulisic, after which mainstream American media treated him as the apotheosis of the American soccer player, a young man who could take any game by the scruff of its neck and turn it around like, say, Lionel Messi or Kylian Mbappé. This was a heavy and unfair load for Pulisic, an excellent player with a bright future, to bear. After all, Pulisic, like the mercurial and brilliant Moroccan player Hakim Ziyech, rarely even starts for Chelsea, their London club; at the national level, neither player is surrounded by galácticos or even plain old stars.

But what a wonderful set of surprises this World Cup has offered: first Saudi Arabia dismantling Messi & Co.; then Japan’s come-from-behind victory over Germany before unexpectedly going down to Costa Rica, then bouncing back to topple mighty Spain. And how about Morocco topping its group, challenging the hegemony of the Europeans and South Americans and then, in the upset of the tournament, going on to defeat Spain in a penalty shootout that has brought them into the quarterfinals? There have also been many enormous changes at the last minute, featuring, well, just about everybody, but especially Germany, Spain, Japan, South Korea, Uruguay, Ghana, the U.S.A., and Iran. Meanwhile, Mexico, Germany, Denmark, and Belgium went out at the group stage, all teams tipped to make it into the last sixteen.

There have also, of course, been some spectacular goals, none better than Richarlison’s scissor kick, which put Brazil up 2–0 against Serbia. What do we talk about when we talk about goals? Well, unfortunately, we can’t avoid VAR as a subject for endless discussion. Time and again, VAR—the instant replay of soccer, introduced in 2018—is responsible for the frustrations of celebration interruptus, stifling the collective orgasmic cries of the crowd and only allowing them to return either as lower-volume cheers (goal confirmed) or as a misery that quickly fades to whimpers (goal denied). Most frequently, VAR deals with the esoterica of the offside rule. I’m not going to get into it, but—for the benefit of those who still can’t fathom why what appears to be a perfectly good goal should be discounted if the crescent moon of an attacker’s toenail was extended a centimeter beyond the last defender’s knee at the precise moment that a ball was passed to her—I present the explanation, verbatim, of my soccer-obsessed four-year-old grandson: “If a defenser aren’t behind you or if one’s just in front or if one’s just on back.” Got it? Goal-line technology is a subvariant of VAR—at least that’s what I thought, until FIFA announced that it had used VAR and goal-line technology to check Japan’s hugely controversial second goal against Spain (the ball appeared to the naked eye to have been pulled back by Kaoru Mitoma from across the end line after it had gone out), which had the side effect of eliminating Germany from the competition.

Over the weekend we saw the promising young U.S. team go down to a strong, skillful, and tactically superior Netherlands; Messi turn back the years to help Argentina easily outplay Australia; France, with Mbappé at his dazzling best, overwhelm Poland; and England, buoyed no doubt by frequent renditions of “God Save the King” from its fans, defeat Senegal, with nineteen-year-old Jude Bellingham running the midfield and Harry Kane rounding into form as both a scorer and a playmaker.

On Monday, Brazil realized the dream of a Rio Carnival and danced its way past South Korea 4–1 with its full panoply of captivating effects on display. There have been many great incarnations of Brazil over the years, but this was Brazil as we haven’t really seen them since 1970, when the team—featuring Pelé, Rivellino, and Jairzinho—played like gods in Mexico. Now those players’ sublime skill set has reconstituted itself in Neymar, Vinícius Júnior, and Richarlison. It’s true that South Korea didn’t offer the stoutest opposition, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t blinded by the light. Earlier that day Japan went down to Croatia on penalties, a disappointing ending for a team that had delighted and entertained in equal measure. Then on Tuesday, in front of a huge crowd of their ecstatic fans decked out in red and green, Morocco took on Spain. Sometimes it seems as if Spain’s tactic under coach Luis Enrique is simply to bore the other team into giving up a goal. It’s the antithesis of Brazil’s high-octane progress down the field. Meanwhile, Morocco’s defending throughout the tournament has been tireless and extraordinary; the team has let in only one goal in four matches. And so, after half an hour of extra time, it came to penalties and Spain missed its first three. When Achraf Hakimi stroked in the winning shot for Morocco, the Al-Rayyan Stadium, and probably the entire Arab world, erupted. They may not win it, but Morocco is the team to love in this World Cup. Next up for Morocco is Portugal, which, with Ronaldo largely on the bench, crushed Switzerland 6–1 with a hat trick from his replacement, Gonçalo Ramos.

Fifty-six games have been played so far. I’ve watched them all, with the exception, I admit, of those played at 5:00 A.M. EST. I have my very own VVIP lounge, where, as in the equivalent hospitality areas in Qatar, as reported by Sarah Lyall and Christina Goldbaum in the New York Times, alcohol is freely available. I watch alone, although can one ever be truly alone in a diffuse global crowd that includes a guy with a huge lion head, dancing fans from six continents, individuals in wacko outfits, joyful and/or distressed children, and, Fox Sports’ favorite crowd shot, those who are weeping uncontrollably? O saisons, o châteaux, I thought until Monday that France, not Brazil, was going to win this thing. Now I’d like to hedge my bet, but, hey, like a loss in a penalty shootout, that’s no way to say goodbye. So I’ll stick with Kylian Mbappé.

Jonathan Wilson’s new novel The Red Balcony will be published by Schocken in February 2023.