Peter Goldstein

Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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The Greatest Goal?

    What’s the greatest goal in World Cup history? Silly question, I know. It’s Maradona against England, or maybe Carlos Alberto against Italy. Or maybe one of a hundred other goals that you just happen to be crazy about. And there’s nothing more futile than trying to convince someone that look, Dennis Bergkamp’s winner against Argentina was way better than Nelinho’s shot against Italy, because on a 12-point scale evaluating precision, unexpectedness, brilliance, etc. etc. etc., you know. It’s all personal taste. But since I’m lucky enough to write a column here at Planet World Cup, it means I get a couple of thousand words to indulge myself. So I will. So here follows an analytical catalogue of Great World Cup Goals, finishing up with my own idiosyncratic why-the-heck-did-you-pick-that choice for The Greatest Ever.

    Great goals can be divided roughly into three groups: individual, assisted, and team. Great individual goals take their greatness from the actions of a single player; great assisted goals take their greatness from the actions of two or three players; great team goals take their greatness from the actions of four or more players. As noted, these are rough distinctions--in some cases you can argue whether a goal fits into one group or another--but they’re distinct enough to offer a basis for discussion.

    Let’s take great individual goals first. One kind is the remarkable solo move and finish. The archetype of these goals is, naturally, Diego Maradona’s classic against England in 1986. Some others come to mind: Archie Gemmill against Holland in 1978, Jairzinho against Czechoslovakia in 1970, Roberto Baggio against Czechoslovakia in 1990; Pele against Sweden in 1958, Saeed Al-Owairan against Belgium in 1994 (although I’ve always thought that one was a bit overrated), and Maradona himself against Belgium in 1986. I’m sure you can think of others.

    On very rare occasions, you have a goal which is merely set up by the fabulous individual move, and converted with ease by another player. The one I’m thinking of is Mohammed Chaouch’s goal for Morocco against Saudi Arabia in 1994. Get the tape if you’ve never seen it--Ahmed Bahja makes a spectacular series of moves on the left and crosses low for Chaouch, who has a tap-in. Strictly speaking it’s an assisted goal, but since you or I could probably have converted the finish, I prefer to think of it as an individual goal.

    The second kind of individual goal is the spectacular shot. We all have our favorites: Arie Haan against West Germany and Italy in 1978 (and don’t forget his countryman Wim Jonk against Saudi Arabia in 1994), Sunday Oliseh against Spain in 1998, Paul Breitner against Chile in 1974, and my all-time favorite, Nelinho’s immortal against Italy in 1978. Those are all long-distance blasts, but a great shot doesn’t have to be from far out: Edmilson’s overhead smash against Costa Rica in 2002 certainly belongs in that class.

    There are a few goals which combine the great dribble and the great shot. Bobby Charlton’s goal against Mexico in 1966 is much beloved in England, although my favorite in this group is Lothar Matthäus’ spectacular effort against Yugoslavia in 1990.

    Now we move to assisted goals. What distinguishes an assisted goal from an individual goal is that it contains fine play by two or three players, not just one. The prototype assisted goal gives the feeling of a quick, cooperative, unitary movement which gets the ball in the back of the net.

    Perhaps the most memorable kind of assisted goal is the outstanding finish by an individual which wouldn’t have happened without a fine setup from one or two teammates. The benchmark here is Dennis Bergkamp’s celebrated winner against Argentina in 1998. It was a superb piece of skill, but wouldn’t have happened without that perfect long pass from Frank DeBoer. Another from that same tournament was Cuauhtémoc Blanco’s death-defying far- post horizontal strike against Belgium, which came off a neat sequence from Jesús Arellano and Ramón Ramírez. Let’s also put Manuel Negrete’s famous scissors kick against Bulgaria in 1986 in that class, since it needed a good feed from none other than Javier Aguirre before the explosion. In 2002 we had Dario Rodríguez’ blast against Denmark, set up by a perfectly flipped pass from Pablo Garcia.

    Another kind of assisted goal, rarer, has the primary brilliance in the setup, not the finish. My favorite here is Amarildo’s winning goal for Brazil against Spain in 1962. It’s set up by a breathtaking set of moves and a perfect cross from Garrincha. Amarildo’s header is very good too. (It’s not just a tap-in, so this counts as an assisted goal, vs. the similar Chaouch goal discussed above.)

    Some assisted goals give you something special in both the buildup and the finish. Romania’s goal against Colombia in 1998 featured a nifty backheel from Gheorghe Hagi and a beautiful chip from Adrian Ilie. Then there’s the combination between Karl-Heinz Rumenigge and Felix Magath against Chile in 1982, a neat one-two with Magath’s backheel and Rumenigge’s stab finish. And there’s a little known classic by Vitali Khmelnitski for the USSR vs. Belgium in 1970, where he runs most of the length of the field down the left wing, cuts inside, beats two players, passes to a teammate on the right, and continues into the area for a perfect header off the return feed.

    Another kind of assisted goal lacks anything particularly brilliant in the finish or setup, but simply has quality throughout. When the Brazilians do it, which is quite often, the artistry is such that even without brilliance you still have greatness. There’s Romario’s goal against the Netherlands in the 1994 quarterfinal, set up on a long pass (was it Dunga or Mauro Silva?) and a perfect cross from Bebeto. Or Jairzinho’s winner against England in 1970, set up by Tostao and Pele. OK, let’s give England a call too, against Cameroon in 1990: Terry Butcher’s neat pass to a streaking Stuart Pearce, and the inch-perfect cross for David Platt’s powerful header.

    The last category is team goals, which involve four or more players. In essence, the team goal is just the assisted goal writ large--it’s a series of actions which feels like a single sequence, only with more players involved. The distinction is arbitrary, really; why draw the line at four instead of five or six? I don’t have an answer, except to say that given how hard it is to put together a great coordinated goal, between three and four players you get a pretty large dropoff.

    In fact, the great team goal is extremely rare; having watched tapes of all the goals since 1982, and just about all the great goals since 1958, I’d say there are fewer than ten. Belgium has managed a couple: against Uruguay in 1990 (Clijsters’ header) and Paraguay in 1986 (Vercauteren’s chip). France’s first-minute goal against Italy in 1978, climaxed by Lacombe’s header, belongs in the class, as does Algeria’s length-of-the-pitch counterattack against Chile in 1982, Assad getting the finish.

    The gold standard for team goals, of course, is Brazil’s fourth goal against Italy in the 1970 Final. Clodoaldo’s bullfighter’s moves, Rivelino’s neat pass, Tostao’s gyrations, Pele’s sweet layoff, and Carlos Alberto’s slam all combine for an immortal. No matter how often you see it, the finish is breathtaking. No wonder many consider it the greatest goal in World Cup history.

    Nevertheless, I think there’s a better team goal, and you only have to go back four years to find it. Senegal vs. Denmark, June 6, 2002, Daegu, South Korea. We’re early in the second half, with Denmark up 1:0 and looking for more. A cross-field pass finds Martin Jorgensen on the left, about 8 meters from the goal line just outside the penalty area. He thinks about a move and cross…

    …and suddenly the ball isn’t his anymore. Henri Camara, a striker who’s tracked all the way back on defense, makes a perfect sliding tackle, pops up, touches the ball once with his left foot, then with his right sends a 25-meter pass ahead for El Hadji Diouf. Diouf, coming quickly back from his advanced position, delivers a one-touch backheel for Pape Bouba Diop, who follows with his own one-touch pass across the field for a streaking Khalilou Fadiga about 10 meters past the halfway line in the inside left channel.

    Both teams are now in full flight, Senegal advancing, Denmark retreating. Fadiga continues to push forward, with the ball on his favored left foot. Souleymane Camara is coming down the middle of the pitch, but then makes a diagonal run from right to left near the top of the box, clearing out the area, and Salif Diao glides into the empty space. Fadiga spots Diao, and sends a pinpoint pass onto his right foot. With his first touch, Diao controls it; with his second, he flicks it with the outside of his foot into the corner of the net. Goal for Senegal.

    Certainly this was a remarkable goal by any standard, and has been recognized as such--in the FIFA-sponsored tournament video, it was rated the number one goal of the 2002 World Cup. But the more you look at it, the more you realize that it’s not just great, but all-time great. What you have is six players working in concert, each doing something distinctive, each doing something superbly, to produce a single, coordinated, length-of-the-field movement that results in a goal. The sequence lasts fully 13 seconds, but passes in a whirlwind.

Let’s break it down player by player:

1) Henri Camara--sliding tackle followed by pass straight upfield.
2) Diouf--one-touch backheel.
3) Bouba Diop--one-touch cross-field pass.
4) Souleymane Camara--diagonal run.
5) Khalilou Fadiga--carefully timed through ball.
6) Salif Diao--control and finish.

    Four out of six of these actions--those by H. Camara, Diouf, Fadiga and Diao--are absolutely top-class, impossible to improve upon. Bouba Diop’s pass is almost perfect, maybe a 9.8 out of 10; Fadiga has to move a little bit out of his path to get it. S. Camara’s diagonal run could be sharper (although under the circumstances it’s an inspiration). Even with these mild blemishes, you have a seamless combination of outstanding, varied plays that has simply never been matched in World Cup history.

    Better than Brazil’s goal? I’d say so. Without question, Brazil’s has more artistry: Clodoaldo, Tostao, and Pele all give you flair as well as excellence. The finish is also more dramatic. At the same time, Brazil’s goal, great as it is, gives the impression of several superb improvised individual actions, not so much the actions of a team. That’s typically Brazilian, of course, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. But look at Senegal’s goal, and you’ll see a team working with breathtaking spontaneous coherence, and not a little bit of flair themselves. There’s H. Camara’s stylish tackle and follow-up, Diouf’s inspired backheel, Diao’s arrogant finish. For me, the combination is irresistible and unbeatable.

    And you know what I’m going to say: it’s the Greatest Goal Ever. Greater than Maradona against England? Yes. But it’s apples and oranges, really: you can’t compare the spectacular individual inspiration with the perfectly coordinated team effort. There’s no room in a team goal for that kind of individual achievement--each person’s contribution is subordinated to the whole. Which kind of goal is better is up to you. In the end, it’s all about thrill. The truly great team goal, because it’s so rare, thrills me more. Football is an incredibly hard game, and when a bunch of guys get it just right, and all together, it’s the most wonderful thing in sports. And it helps to know that we’ll always have great individual goals, and assisted goals too. All of the goals mentioned in this column, and many others, are worth watching again and again. But if I have to pick one, I pick Senegal’s goal against Denmark on June 6, 2002. How about you? And why?



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