They say art is a subjective matter. What one person finds majestic another can find abhorrent. Tracey Emin’s Unmade Bed, Michelangelo’s statue of David and Banksy’s Raise the Drawbridge are all works of art, but beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.
There are artistic pieces that have beguiled mankind since they were revealed to the world and will continue to spark debate and discourse for all eternity. ‘What is the single greatest work of art?’ is an impossible question to answer. A more appropriate question would be: what is your favourite type of art?
The same can be said for the simple act of a ball with a 28-inch circumference travelling across a white line approximately four inches wide. It is how the ball is propelled across the paint that draws debate and discourse and fuels the rationale behind the argument of what is a beautiful goal.
In a recent fixture a commentator uttered the line, “And that is my favourite type of goal.” The goal was a simple swept-in finish from a low cross, but the comment sparked a personal interest in how you classify types of goals and what football fans consider to be aesthetically pleasing when seeing the ball cross the line.
Brian Clough’s line “It only takes a second to score a goal” is technically correct, as the ball only needs to go from one side of the paint to the other, but the build-up to it can take much longer, from retaining possession to scoring. In order to define what makes a goal beautiful, memorable or unique requires you to separate the goal-scoring action from the importance of the game.
A goal that wins a cup final will be lauded as legendary, forever featuring in a club’s anthology of its greatest goals, even if it’s a horrible penalty box melee. That, however, doesn’t make it beautiful, so we need to remove the context. Similarly, if someone scores from 40 yards out for a team 4-0 down in the final minute will see that goal extinguished from the history books, lost in the embarrassment of such a heavy defeat.
So with a neutral agenda and the history of football to embrace, can the beautiful game shed light on its greatest works of art? Is it possible to articulate your favourite type of goal?
Great individual goals tend to be categorised as a solo dribble past numerous players, or when a player uses their technique and ability to conjure a goal out of nothing. The solo dribble is perhaps best embodied by two Argentina legends in Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. Maradona’s goal against England at the 1986 World Cup was voted FIFA’s Goal of the Century. Starting in his own half, the Argentine swept past five English defenders and rounded Peter Shilton before scoring. Lionel Messi’s almost identical goal against Getafe only served to increase the comparisons to his compatriot.
Original Series | Diego Maradona: the World Cup diaries
The allure of the solo goal is how the anticipation builds. The player draws the crowd in as they start to run with the ball. As they get closer to the goal, so the crowd reaches fever pitch. Fans tentatively start to get to their feet at varying points of the action. The noise from the crowd rises and reaches a crescendo as, all at once, the player has scored, the crowd are on their feet, and the disbelief echoes around the ground at what they have just seen. The beauty here is partly in the bewilderment of the opposition as they each try to absolve themselves from blame.
Similar to the solo dribble is the goal which is scored by rounding the goalkeeper. An art in itself as it requires close control and a strong nerve, to go around the ‘keeper prolongs the action and can allow defenders to get back onto the line to clear, but in the hands of a proficient forward, the site of a goalkeeper rushing out to narrow the angle only to be sat down by the drop of a shoulder is a sight to behold.
Brazilian Ronaldo was an expert in racing clear of the defence and, with lightning speed, stepping over the ball and pushing it past a mesmerised goalkeeper. It is not the finish that makes this type of goal beautiful, but the nerve to prolong the inevitable and beat the last player on the pitch before rolling into an empty goal.
Thierry Henry rarely felt the need to go around the goalkeeper; instead he created a template that eventually led to such consistency and inevitability that you could pause the action with Henry in the inside left position entering the penalty area and the goalkeeper planting himself trying to be as big as possible. Any regular viewer of Arsenal in the 2000s would be able to guarantee what would happen next. Henry would open his body and, with his right foot cocked 90 degrees at the ankle, calmly stroke the ball past the goalkeeper’s left hand and inside the far post.
Finally, for the most impudent and brave goal-scorers who find themselves in a one on one situation, there is the delicate lifted finish over the goalkeeper. Like gunslingers at high noon, this type of goal is a question of who can hold their nerve the longest before committing themselves to action. Once a goalkeeper has committed and gone to ground, the player can lift the ball almost imperceptibly over them before the ball lands, hitting the turf and rolling in.
From multiple touches and acceleration of pace, the discussion must move on to the one-touch finish. Categories are numerous but for a goal to be considered beautiful, it must have an air of brilliance and the strike must be pure and clean.
The volley is arguably one of the most difficult goals to score, as the player is continually making subconscious micro adjustments to their body position to ensure a clean strike. The intended recipient’s brain is like a computer processor weighing up options, techniques and outcomes in the milliseconds before opting for the perfect solution.
Marco van Basten’s goal in the Euro 88 final is still referred to by merely the player’s name. When the statement “Van Basten’s goal” is mentioned, fans know exactly which goal. It is the ultimate accolade to score a goal of such exquisite beauty and uniqueness that everyone knows it purely by the player’s name.
Read | Marco van Basten: an undisputed legend despite a premature end
Van Basten’s goal originated from the left touchline as a long. deep cross was swung over and seemed to take an interminable amount of time to arrive at the feet of the Dutch striker. As the ball swung across the Russian penalty area, Van Basten made numerous adjustments of his body before unleashing a dipping volley over the head of the great Rinat Dasayev. The strike took place six yards from the by-line and only two yards inside the 18-yard-box. The best part? The drunken stagger of Dasayev after the ball had gone past him. The reaction of the goalkeeper plays a part in the aesthetic legend of a goal.
Equally stunning, equally technical, equally micro-processed and equally emphatic, Zinedine Zidane’s Champions League final volley is stuck in time. Only this time, instead of the ball travelling a great distance laterally, it arrived vertically to the Frenchman. A planted right foot and a technically perfect swing of the left saw the ball hit the back of the net before Bayern Leverkusen’s Hans-Jörg Butt had taken off to perform his despairing dive.
The only way volleys such as Zidane’s and Van Basten’s can be improved is via the multi-named overhead kick; the unfurling of limbs as a ball arrives at the tricky height between a header and volley and is slightly misplaced behind the attacking player in the penalty area. The sudden acrobatic movement, akin to something an Olympic gymnast may perform as part of their vault or floor routine, is a beautiful action to behold, the movement as audacious as it is unexpected.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal against Juventus in the Champions League demonstrates what can be salvaged from a poorly executed cross. The athleticism and artistry performed by the scorer burns an image into the minds of those that witness it. It is a type of goal that has youngsters grabbing a football the very next day and persistently – and painfully – trying to recreate it. There are few goals better than these balletic beauties that inspire the next generation of stars to go out and practice.
There is a slight difference in the overhead and the scissor kicks. The overhead kick does exactly what it says and goes back over the player’s head and towards the goal. The scissor kick sees the player approach the ball from a side-on position and perform a scissor action to strike the ball into the net. Usually taken above waist height, the ball is struck with power towards the goal. Manuel Negrete’s goal for Mexico at the 1986 World Cup is a classic example of such a goal. As with all acrobatic goals, there is no build-up of anticipation. The strike is instinctive. Blink and you’ll miss it.
From athletic prowess to bludgeoning strength, the shot from distance has an element of fortune about it. Players strike the ball from distance and hope to beat the goalkeeper with sheer power. These goals have numerous names within the British lexicon of football. Piledriver, howitzer, screamer, ping and rocket are but a few descriptors of a goal that is scored from outside the penalty area.
There are, however, elements that can add to the aesthetic quality of such brutal power. For these to be considered works of art, it is important that they enter the goal via the top-corner. The best strikes from distance leave the player’s foot at ground level and travel on a trajectory that just keeps rising until hitting the back of the net. For pure theatre, a goalkeeper’s fully extended arms, outstretched and committed to a despairing, full-length dive, only serves to reinforce the ferocity and speed at which the ball is travelling.
Read | Zinedine Zidane: the Juventus diaries
The recent passing of Cyrille Regis saw numerous re-runs of his 1981/82 goal of the season against Norwich. Collecting the ball on the halfway line and striding forward, the West Bromwich Albion striker struck the ball 30 yards from goal. The beauty of this type of goal lies in its air of inevitability; the moment it’s struck, despite the distance to the intended target, everyone knows where that ball will finish.
Siphiwe Tshabalala’s opening goal of the 2010 World Cup portrays an added dimension to the shot from distance. It has that added element of beauty whereby the ball doesn’t rotate on its epic journey towards its target. It gives the appearance that the ball is suspended in time and space and that the entire goal, pitch and stadium are rushing towards it.
Considering the simplistic nature of the long-distance strike, it is difficult to believe the numerous variables that can be added in order to make the goal even more special. However, the final element that can make the long-range effort more aesthetically pleasing is the added audible ping of the ball striking the woodwork before crossing the line.
The acute angle at which the ball changes direction releases a momentary pause in elation while fans check themselves, ensuring it has crossed the line, while at the same time giving the goalkeeper false hope that he can retrieve the situation. In off the post or bar is the only type of goal to stimulate two of the five senses, which is possibly why it holds such a special place in the hearts of fans.
So far the categories of goals have been a combination of pace or power. The modern game has become almost a trial of athleticism over skill and technique, however there is a type of goal that relies solely on skill and requires the scorer to almost slow the game down around them.
The chip over the ‘keeper requires extraordinary judgment and fine motor skills as the player propels the ball up and over the stopper while ensuring it drops below the crossbar in time. Sadly, as a standalone skill, it is difficult to reproduce in the often frenetic pace of the modern game. Like a lob shot in tennis, however, there are few greater sights than a stranded goalkeeper watching a ball sail over their head in a perfect parabolic curve.
Davor Šuker, Philippe Albert, Eric Cantona, Éder and Glenn Hoddle have all provided moments when the entire game seems to have gone into slow motion, only to violently wrench itself back to normal speed with the noise of the crowd as the ball hits the back of the net.
Football is a game of open skill movements; there are very few situations where closed skills are required. Examples are throw-ins, penalties and free-kicks. The art of the closed skill is that it relies on the player’s technique holding up in a pressure situation. The direct free-kick from 20-30 yards out is viewed as a realistic goal-scoring opportunity. Like a game of chess, the opposition put barriers in place to prevent the ultimate outcome in the form of a human wall.
Read | Eric Cantona: the early French years
A free-kick specialist needs to decide what their best course of action is: power, placement, up and over the wall, or bend the ball around it. A goal scored from a direct free-kick is the culmination of years of practice. The most aesthetically pleasing free-kicks are the ones that are bent into the top corner.
Having the confidence in your technique to start the ball wide of your intended target before the swerve, or Bernoulli effect, brings the ball back inside the post requires practice and more practice; it’s not a natural skill. Roberto Carlos’s free-kick against France in 1997 demonstrates the technique required to score such a goal.
Not every goal-scoring work of art is perpetrated by individual artists, however. The team goal can be every bit as enjoyable as the moments of individual brilliance. Football is a team game with 11 separate components and occasionally a goal is scored by utilising them all.
There is the slow build-up, with teams probing from one side of the pitch to the other, going backwards to go forwards trying to manipulate the opposition out of position, before increasing the tempo and killing off their chasing opponents like a wounded animal. At the time, it seems like you can’t remember when the move actually began. It is only after replays – sometimes played at double speed – that you realise the patience that is required to score such a goal.
Then there is the lightning-quick, one-touch passing move, all completed within the restricted confines in and around the penalty area. It’s a goal that sees teams operating as separate fingers of a surgeon’s hands. Extreme assurance and movement create a deep incision into the very heart of the opponent. Defenders are left chasing shadows, trying to stem the flow, seemingly unsure of where the player starts and the ball ends. Like an incision, the final cut is always the deepest.
Arsenal’s goal against Norwich in 2013 is a fine example of the one-touch team goal. The Gunners moved the ball from the edge of their own penalty area to the edge of their opponents through a combination of passing and running with the ball. Then, in five swift and incisive touches, the ball was in the Norwich goal. Such assuredness played at high speed can be beautiful to watch as every contribution is as important as the final one that sees the ball roll across the line. Anything less than perfection in those five touches and the chance is gone.
Not all team goals require numerous touches, however. The professional game has become quicker, with football now being played by supreme athletes. The fast break, originally a term associated with basketball, has come to symbolise the utilisation of the increased athleticism within the game. Going from back to front with only three or four passes can be just as easy on the eye as the intricate touches on the edge of the area.
The breakaway goal is perhaps the only one where the future outcome can possibly be seen by the fans before it happens. The fast break is like looking into the future. With the expanse of grass laid out before them, the fans can see the right pass, the correct option. Goals in this category are usually accompanied by the commentator suggesting, “If they get this right, they could be in here.” Such goals are all about pace and decision-making: make the right choice at the right moment and a scoring opportunity will present itself.
Read | How Dennis Bergkamp became a symbol of elegance at Arsenal
Another beautiful element of the fast break is that it comes from your own goal being under threat. The palpitations that come from the ball being in and around your penalty area is replaced by instant excitement and anticipation as the ball moves at great speed towards your opponent’s. This type of goal brings about huge emotional swings within mere seconds, making the exultation even more intense.
Not all great goals are scored with the foot. A header has the potential to be every bit as pleasing on the eye as any other type of goal. While most headers are either flicked or powerful efforts, the rare image of the diving header is still an act of intense beauty allied with bravery to put your head where the boots are flying.
The indelible image of the 1987 FA Cup final is Keith Houchen’s diving header for Coventry City’s second goal. Such was the beauty of this goal that it was voted in the top 10 goals ever scored at Wembley, as well as winning the BBC’s 1987 Goal of the Season competition.
Finally we come to the uncategorised goal. The type of goal that doesn’t have a classification because there has only been one of them. As a friend and fellow writer on this site told me, his favourite type of goal is one that relies purely on improvisation; a “what the hell has he just done there” moment.
Dennis Bergkamp’s goal against Newcastle is a great example of a unique, incomparable effort. Fans and pundits are still unsure of how Bergkamp, with his back to goal, moved the ball around Nikos Dabizas. Keen students of the game, however, will be able to point to numerous examples of this type of goal.
Frank Worthington’s goal against Ipswich in 1979 is one that stands out from my childhood as one of incomparable brilliance. More recently, Hal Robson-Kanu’s strike against Belgium at Euro 2016 has simplicity at its core, but it’s beautiful to watch three Belgian defenders all go the wrong way with one turn.
As my learned friend goes on to suggest: “I love them because I know I am watching genius; I’m watching somebody infinitely better than me and it gives me, as the audience, a purpose and a reason to watch rather than play.”
The appreciation of art is a subjective matter. Discussion and opinion is what keeps the game alive. Every fan will have an opinion on what is their favourite type of goal and what constitutes beauty. For me, it’s in the very anatomy of the goal being scored that makes up its beauty. What is certain is that there is no such thing as a bad goal; it’s just that some are of such extreme beauty that they live on long after the scorer has hung up their boots. These are the goals that reverberate around the game like a classic work of art.
By Stuart Horsfield @loxleymisty44
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