Signature moment

Whenever a new actor is cast as the Doctor or as James Bond, one of the comments that invariable gets made is that now, that actor knows what the first line of his obituary will be. And it’s true–Matt Smith is twenty-nine years old, but he knows that no matter what else his life holds for him, his obituary will introduce him as, “the eleventh actor to portray the title role in the BBC television programme Doctor Who“. There are really only two actors across the two roles who’ve accomplished enough else in their careers that most people don’t automatically think of the Doctor or 007 when they see their faces–Sir Sean Connery and Peter Davison–but even both of them still know that those relatively brief periods of their early lives will still be the first thing that shows up in their obituaries.

Similarly, sportsmen and sportswomen have moments that define their career in much the same way. It’s pretty much impossible to run a news story about Joe Namath without showing the footage of him jogging off the field of Super Bowl III with the single finger raised over his head in victory. Brandi Chastain will for the rest of her life be the player who whipped her shirt off after scoring the goal that won the shootout against China in the final of the women’s World Cup. Whenever Michael Phelps gets mentioned on TV, we’ll see his one hundredth of a second victory over Milorad Čavić. Gordon Banks’s save against Pelé’s downward header at the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico, when his body seemed to defy the laws of physics, is the signature moment for both players, as Pelé ruefully admits: “It’s amazing because it was 35 years ago, but people ask me about that save all the time–not just in England, but all over the world. You know, I scored a lot of goals in that World Cup, but people don’t remember them. Sometimes I watch TV and before games they show this save. I say, ‘Why don’t they show the goals?'”

There are several things I find interesting about these career-defining moments. The first is that we don’t know they’re coming. There was no reason, until it actually occurred, that the finish to Michael Phelps’s seventh final of the 2008 Summer Games should have been any more significant than the dozen or so races he’d already swum those Games (counting both qualifiers and finals), during which he’d already won six gold medals, or the following race, in which he hoped to win an eighth gold medal. There was no reason to expect that that one particular shot from Pelé would result in what most football analysts believe is the single greatest save a goalkeeper has ever made; indeed, it’s precisely because it was unexpected–that it looked, at the moment Pelé struck the ball, impossible–that it’s so great.

The second is that it’s not necessarily the player’s greatest moment. Phelps’s win was the first time, in seven attempts, that he failed to set a world record in a final race in Beijing. Brandi Chastain’s bra-bearing celebration came after she scored a penalty kick, probably the most routine and pedestrian thing a goal scorer can do. Indeed, sometimes it’s a really low moment that becomes the first thing people associate with a sportsman–the blood trickling down Greg Louganis’s forehead; Paul Gascoigne’s blubbering tears upon receiving a yellow card in the World Cup semi-final against West Germany.

So if it’s not necessarily their most brilliant moment, then what makes that indelible instant that will come to define a player’s career in the years ahead? It ends up being combination of factors. The spectacle of the moment is certainly important. But so is the importance and visibility of the context–who knows how many other acrobatic, apparently impossible saves Gordon Banks made, that happened to be in league matches for Leicester City against Blackpool or Burnley rather than for England at a World Cup finals?

Or there’s the possibility of the moment running against expectations. Like Pelé having his shot saved. Or Dennis Law, who scored about two hundred goals for Manchester United (his record as United’s most prolific scorer in European competition stood into the twenty-first century, when it was broken by Ruud Van Nistelrooy), but the goal that always gets mentioned is the one he scored against United, when he moved on to a season at Manchester City at the twilight of his career, for that was the goal that condemned United to relegation to the Second Division.

Wayne Rooney’s winning goal in Saturday’s Manchester derby has been getting reshown in sports coverage ever since he scored it. How big has it become? Big enough that it got discussed here on Washington, DC, talk radio, on Tony Kornheiser’s local show. And it didn’t even need to be introduced or given context–“Did you see Rooney’s goal?” was all Kornheiser was asked, to which he responded, “Yeah, I did.”

I think Rooney’s goal has a strong possibility to be that signature moment of his career–to be the first line of his footballing obituary, if you like; the one moment most likely to be referenced, to be replayed, every time Rooney is mentioned following his (eventual) retirement from football. So many factors are aligned in its favour.

It came against Manchester City. It came thirteen minutes from time, shortly after City had equalised. The eyes of the whole world were on that match; with United in first and City in third, it was the most significant Manchester derby since that 1974 meeting when Dennis Law scored for City. For Wayne Rooney personally it’s come after a very tough season–his controversy in the tabloids, his declaration (subsequently retracted) that he wished to leave Man United, and of course his ten months dry of goals scored in open play, a period he really only ended a couple of weeks ago with his two goals against Aston Villa.

And the goal itself is spectacular enough on its own that, even if it had come against Luton Town in the fourth round of the League Cup, it would still have made any Top Ten Goals of the Season list.

What it really depends on is how the rest of the season plays out. Should Man United lift the title in three months, then that goal will be cemented as the key image of Wayne Rooney’s career; only scoring the winner in a World Cup semi-final or final will be able to dislodge it.

I

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