Also I still hate that they now tell us how many minutes of stoppage time there’ll be

Back when I was in high school in Florida in the 1990s, every weekend my dad and I would go down to the Rose and Crown English pub (funnily enough, owned by a Scot) in Largo and watch the Premier League match of the week.  This was back long before the days of Fox Sports World (which went on to become Fox Soccer Channel and is now Fox Sports One), when the Premier League’s North American broadcast rights were owned by Setanta, and the only way to see a league match was to go to a bar or restaurant that was a Setanta subscriber and pay a mandatory twenty-dollar cover charge for the privilege.

(It’s never occurred to me until I just wrote that paragraph, but that means it cost my dad forty to eighty bucks a week for the two of us to watch the football: twenty dollars for each of us, potentially doubled if we decided we wanted to see both the Saturday and Sunday matches on a given week.  And that’s before you factor in the costs of our English breakfasts and however many pints he had.)

We watched the matches with a crowd of other expats who were mostly male, mostly white and mostly British or Irish.  We had a fairly broad spread in terms of age, but I, in my middle teens, was the youngest by probably ten years.  And it was a fairly regular occurrence that the crowd would, whenever the referee blew for a free kick, raise their voices in discontent, as they seemed to feel that whatever perceived infraction the ref thought he had seen was not, in fact, a foul.

This wasn’t necessarily partisan; there were lots of instances where supporters of both sides seemed to think the ref was taking too hard a line.  It always confused me, because it generally seemed to me—and, significantly, to the commentator on the TV—that one team clearly had fouled the other.  This was my introduction, though I didn’t entirely realise it at the time, to the fact that football is an evolving sport, and that one of its most visible evolutions over the last, oh, twenty-five years has been a dramatic shift in the line that separates a tackle and a foul.

The amount of physical aggression allowed a defender attempting to tackle an opposing attacker has been drastically curtailed, while the expectations upon him to maintain control of his own body and to look out for the safety of his opponent have been inversely raised.  This happened initially in order for football to place an emphasis on technical ability and individual flair, and then continued in the name of player safety.  What would have been a good, solid, exemplary tackle in 1990 would be penalised with a free kick in 1995, and would get you a yellow card in 2000.  What would have been a good tackle in 1995 would get you a yellow card by 2010.  And that excellent tackle from 1990 will get you not only red carded nowadays, but then slapped with a multi-match ban.

I remember specifically my dad talking to one of his friends at a party during the 1998 World Cup.  The friend was expressing how impressed he had been by Marcel Desailly, who (like most of the France team from 1998) had been virtually unknown to British football fans prior to the tournament.  “You always expect him to foul [when he goes in for a tackle],” he said, “but he never does.  He has such long legs, he always comes up with the ball!”

That was the moment that it struck me: my dad, and his friends of his generation, felt that if you came away from a tackle with the ball, then you hadn’t fouled.  That was, for them, the only requirement.  Whereas it seemed obvious to me that that was wrong: a tackle is when you get the ball first.  It’s perfectly possible to foul a player before you get to the ball, by going through him to get to it, and when you do so, then it doesn’t matter to me if you come away with possession—you’ve still fouled.  But if you can contact the ball first, then (barring certain easily-quantifiable caveats, like tackling from behind, or coming in with your studs up, or attempting to take out your opponent’s legs with your trailing foot) your tackle is clean.

Essentially, I realised at that time, they had a definition of football that they had been taught when they learnt the sport, but the definition that was now being used by the governing bodies and the broadcasters—the definition I had been taught—had moved past that.

Well.  I’ve got to tell you that over the past year, I’ve had to face up to the fact that the presentday definition of what’s a tackle and what’s a foul has now definitely moved past me.  Now, as commentators have explicitly reminded me at least a dozen times during the first 56 matches of this World Cup, the standard for a foul isn’t about when or whether the defender made contact with the ball, but rather whether the force with which he came in didn’t show sufficient respect for the attacker’s safety.  There’s a fairly low threshold for physical aggression which, if exceeded, will concede a free kick to your opponents regardless of any other aspect of your tackle.

Football has moved its definition of a foul to a new place, and I simply can’t move along with them.  I cannot watch a defender slide in from the side at an attacker sprinting forward with the ball, see him display the incredible precision necessary—with ball, defender and attacker all moving at fifteen to twenty miles per hour in different directions—to slide the side of his foot over the top of the ball before his momentum slams him into the attacker’s legs, and have any reaction other than, What a bloody inch-perfect tackle.  Wow.

Nigeria received a yellow card—during their match against Argentina, I think, though it might have been Bosnia—that prompted the commentator to say, “Well, let’s put it this way: twenty years ago, that was a great tackle.” And I said out loud, “It should still be a bloody great tackle now.”  For two or three years now, but increasingly over the course of the last season, I’ve found myself snapping at the television, “Oh, come on—he got the fucking ball!”

This isn’t a demand that football go back to where it was fifteen years ago, or a declaration that I’m any less engaged with the spectacle of football than I was when I was a teenager—how can one possibly complain about the how the game is played today during a World Cup finals that has given us van Persie’s header against Spain, Cahill’s goal against the Netherlands, Ochoa’s game against Brazil, Howard’s game against Belgium, or pretty much any touch of the ball James Rodriguez has had?

It’s just an acknowledgement on my part of the fact that, in this aspect, the world has left me behind.


He faced down the Red Army, the French Resistance and Birmingham City

I remember, as a teenager, hearing of the Manchester City goalkeeper who played the last seventeen minutes of the 1956 FA Cup final with a broken neck, but I had no idea who the goalkeeper in question was, that he wasn’t British (since this was long before the days foreigners were a common sight in English football) or that he was notable for anything beyond that one single curiosity.

Some years later, I watched a documentary about German POWs who had been retained in camps in Britain, France and the United States for many years after the end of the Second World War and used essentially as slave labour.  It featured interviews with several such former POWs, including a pair who were sitting next to each other who had been held in a camp in England throughout the late 1940s.  It wasn’t until the very end of the documentary that one of them revealed that the fellow he was sitting next to–who seemed rather embarrassed to have this part talked about at all–had stayed in England after being released from camp, had played for Manchester City and was, in fact, the goalkeeper who had broken his neck in the 1956 final.

Bert Trautmann died on Friday.  He was a Luftwaffe paratrooper who had been captured by the Soviets, the French Resistance and the Americans, and had escaped from all three, before ultimately ending up in British Army custody at the war’s end.  He declined repatriation when released and stayed in England, working on a farm.  In 1949 he signed for City, eliciting furious protests at the idea of an English football club fielding a German war veteran (who had volunteered to serve!) as a player.  He won City supporters over, of course, but the abuse from spectators at away matches continued throughout his career.

But by the time he played in that fateful Cup Final against Birmingham City–Manchester City’s second successive Cup Final–he had already been voted Footballer of the Year for 1956, both the first foreigner and the first goalkeeper to win English football’s most prestigious award.  Despite being one of the most highly regarded keepers of the era, he never played for his country, as during this period West Germany had a policy (like most other national teams, whether officially or unofficially) of only selecting players who played for domestic clubs.

One thing I hadn’t thought of before reading his Wikipedia article: this was back in the 1950s, and it wasn’t until three days after the Cup Final that an X-ray confirmed his neck was, in fact, broken.

Hats off to one of football’s truly colourful stories.

(City seem to have, for whatever reason, a bit of a connection to the Luftwaffe; in addition to Trautmann, in the nineties they also became the club of Uwe Rösler, whose grandfather, famously, was a crewman aboard the bomber that dropped the bomb that hit Old Trafford.)


The philosophy of spoilers

I talked a while ago about when I realised how much more enjoyable becomes when I avoid spoilers, and the basic principle I derived from that.

Right now spoilers are a big topic, because of the Olympics.  If, like me, you’re on the East Coast, you have to wait until 8PM EDT for NBC to start their broadcast of the day’s major events.  That’s 1AM BST–in other words, it’s right when actual competition is wrapping up for the day, and it’s hours and hours after many of the events we’re most interested in have finished.  You have to wait three hours longer on the West Coast.

But while you’re waiting, lots of your friends on Twitter and Facebook already know the outcome, either because they watched it live in Europe or because they’ve gone online–maybe even to NBC’s website itself–so they don’t have to wait.  And they’re talking about it.

I’ve seen both extremes in reaction to this.  I’ve had someone in my stream declare that we need to hold our tongues even after this stuff airs on NBC, to accommodate those who are watching on DVR(!).  And I’ve had someone tell us all that you either can have Twitter, or you can not be spoilt, but that you’ve got no right to expect people online to consider others when spouting spoilers.

I think they’re both wrong.

I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I’ve refined my position down to a basic standard:

If there’s a time we’re all supposed to gather together to watch something, I think it’s really rude to spoil it beforehand.  What this means, as far as the Olympics go, is that it’s my own responsibility to avoid what’s being said by the people I follow who are actually in Britain–they’ve all seen it live on TV (or in a few instances, in person).  But those in America, who are heading online to see it before the rest of us?  They should be taking the rest of us into consideration.  And I’m speaking here as someone who is far more interested in Team GB than Team USA, so this system leaves far more of the onus on me than it does on others.

Note that this does not mean that you can’t talk about what you know. Just have the politeness to ensure that people are able clearly to see that they’re about to read a spoiler before they read it.  Best way to do this is generally to start off with SPOILER in big, obnoxious capital letters.

For TV shows, that rule stands until the episode airs. (Yes, that includes not spoiling things that are being revealed in the adverts.) For a big movie, until it’s been in release for a week. For a book?  As long as it’s a new release (ninety days from publication), certainly, and then probably as long after that as it remains a top ten bestseller.

Note also that this is a minimum.  I for one have always tried to maintain a higher standard.  As far as movies, TV shows, books go?  I try always to include a spoiler warning in some form.  I was going on thirty the first time I saw The Third Man, and it was over sixty years after the film’s first release.  Yet somehow I’d managed never to be spoilt on one of the most famous movie twists of all time, and it was brand new to me.  If I’d known what was coming, it’s entirely possible I wouldn’t have nearly the appreciation for what’s now my all-time favourite film as I do.  But as far as sport goes?  If I’m watching a live event on TV, and I have something to say about it, I say it.

We can talk about the things that engage us.  But we don’t have to trample all over everyone else’s engagement with them to do it.


The moral thing to do

It’s going to be LSU and Alabama. I mean, obviously it is.  And I don’t think we can really call that an injustice.  I’ve been perfectly open that I think a rematch between the two schools is a waste of a national championship game for a number of reasons–because it does a complete disservice to LSU’s regular-season win at Alabama, because Alabama haven’t earnt it, and because it will be, fundamentally, a far less interesting or enticing national championship game than a matchup between LSU and the best non-SEC school would be.

(To be fair, “the best non-SEC school” would still mean “the fourth-best school in the country”.)

But I can’t claim that anyone’s being treated unfairly here; I can’t make an irate argument that someone else is getting dicked over to give Alabama a do-over for the national title and it’s an outrage, dammit!  Because the simple fact is that the reason Alabama are in the title game is because every time there’s another contender to take that number two spot, they keep losing and knocking themselves out of contention–Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon, Boise State, Wisconsin.

But I do think there are two scenarios for which we can make a better moral argument than we can for an LSU/Bama title game.  The first is to have Oklahoma State play LSU.  Let me be clear: I don’t think Oklahoma State are a better football team than Alabama.  I don’t think they’re as good a football team as Alabama.  I think if Alabama played Oklahoma State, Alabama would be likely to win.  (Though if the game were at OK State, I’d probably bet on the Cowboys.)

ETA: When I posted this, I totally forgot to point out that Oklahoma State has beaten two top-ten opponents this year, while Alabama has beaten none top-ten opponents.  It was finding out that fact this morning that first turned me from, “Well, I guess it has to be Alabama,” to, “Wait, no–it should be Oklahoma State.”

But I don’t know which of the two is better, because they haven’t played.  I do know that LSU is better than Alabama, because LSU beat Alabama.  An LSU/Oklahoma State title game would then demonstrate either that Oklahoma State is better than both LSU and Alabama, or that LSU is better than both Alabama and Oklahoma State.  In such a scenario, whether or not Alabama is also better than Oklahoma State would be immaterial.

If we really can’t get any team other than Bama into the game, then I think the other scenario should be just not to hold a national championship game at all.  If Alabama were to beat LSU in the title game, then as far as I’m concerned, LSU would still be national champions.  They’d have beaten Alabama at Alabama, and they’d have endured an extra test Alabama didn’t have to face, winning an additional game in the SEC Championship Game.  The additional points Alabama gains by beating LSU on a neutral field shouldn’t be enough to transfer the national championship from Baton Rouge to Tuscaloosa.

One thing I do feel is that all the champions of the BCS, all the guys who scream every season about what a bad idea a playoff would be, should be the ones most decrying the notion of an LSU/Alabama title game.  Their whole argument is, explicitly, “But with the BCS, our regular season is our playoff!”  And rematching LSU and Bama in the title game gives the lie to that.  Alabama lost their “playoff”.  And they lost it at home.  They shouldn’t be getting a do-over.

Or, you know, we could just have a playoff.


Yesterday and today

Yesterday (1993)
Ian Wright

I’m watching a documentary I taped this weekend, The Story of the FA Cup, which, after an opening quarter hour about the first 89 years of the competition, has had match highlights of every Cup Final since 1961.

Whenever I watch old sport highlights, I’m always fascinated by how, in my head, the moment when I started watching the sport is the demarcating line between the sport’s modern day (by which time the sport has become fast-paced and exciting) and its prehistory (less skilful, less technically accomplished, less engaging as a spectacle).  I first noticed it when I watched America’s Game, the NFL Network’s series which devoted an episode to each winner of the Super Bowl, and I’ve had it reaffirmed tonight.

I started watching football during the 1994 World Cup, the first time the sport became easily accessible to an American TV audience.  So by the mid-1980s, there were players popping up that I can well remember still being professional players in the 1990s: Brian Robson captaining the 1985 Man United side; Ian Rush scoring for Liverpool in the 1986 final; Dennis Wise taking the free kick that provided Wimbledon the only goal in the 1988 final; Ian Wright scoring two goals off the bench for Crystal Palace in the first match of the 1990 final.

But still, even with the easy recognisability of the faces, and with the appearance of kits and balls becoming steadily more modern, the game still looked amateurish, the play sluggish and sloppy.

Today (1996)
Eric Cantona

By the 1990s, the teams were made up entirely of players I know very well, and I was watching highlights of events with which I’m perfectly familiar, even if I wasn’t around to watch them live: Man United beating Crystal Palace in a Final Replay, Alex Ferguson’s first trophy as United manager; the famous 1991 semi-final between Tottenham and Arsenal.

So by this point, I was actively telling myself I needed to be perceiving these matches as modern.  The way things were going, I was about to be seeing highlights from games that I actually had watched live as they happened–Man United’s three consecutive Cup Final appearances from 1994 to 1996–and I’d be thinking to myself, “My God, how did they replace the vibrant, pulsating matches I remember from the live broadcast with antiquated, 70s-style football?”

But then the documentary actually got to the 1994 final, starting with footage of Man United and Chelsea walking out the tunnel at the start of the match.  And seeing the United players take the field, it was as if a switch got flipped in my head.  All of a sudden the players seemed quicker and more capable, the ball lighter and less leaden.

That was shortly followed, of course, by Eric Cantona’s 85th-minute winner against Liverpool in the 1996 final, which is probably the moment from all of professional sport that is preserved most vividly in my memory.  That was only three years after Arsenal beat Sheffield Wednesday in the last ever Cup Final Replay, and now, it’s fifteen years in the past.  Yet the Arsenal-Wednesday replay is History; Cantona giving United the only goal of the match is Recent Events.



My last day in England, I spent a while walking up and down Borehamwood high street while I waited for my uncle to get a haircut.

(Borehamwood, for anyone interested, is the small town north of London that’s home to the various Elstree film studios, where the Hammer Horror films, the first Star Wars trilogy, the original Indiana Jones trilogy and The Muppet Show were all filmed.)

There was, as is much more common in Britain than here in America, a small betting shop on the high street.  It was Monday, so there weren’t any Premier League matches that day, but there was a Spanish league match, between Barcelona and some club from the bottom half of the Spanish table (we’ll say it was Getafe).

Barcelona v Getafe, the sign in the betting shop’s window said, and then suggested a bet I should make: Messi scores first & Barcelona win 2-1; a £10 bet returns £180.

I’m not a gambler; outside of Las Vegas, the only time I can recall placing a monetary wager with a professional was when I went to Royal Ascot for the day with my grandparents in the summer of 1995.  But I returned past this shop several times in the half hour or so I was there, thinking about placing a bet.  It seemed a perfectly achievable thing to have happen, Lionel Messi scoring the opening goal and Barcelona going on to win 2-1, and £180 is quite a return on a ten-pound investment.

(Indeed, if you can get 18:1 odds on that happening for every single match Barcelona play, I’d say you’d be well-advised to take them.  You only have to win that bet four times a season to end up coming out ahead.)

In the event, I did right by not placing the bet; Barcelona ended up winning the match 5-0.  (And Lionel Messi didn’t score the first goal, though he did score the second and fourth.)  But it wasn’t until a little while later that it occurred to me that it was only the wording on the sign itself that had tempted me in the first place.

If it had read, Messi scores first & Barcelona win 2-1; 18:1 odds, I wouldn’t have considered it even for a second.  But it caught my interest because it explicitly said £10 returns £180, which, of course, means exactly the same thing.

Don’t know when I’ll be back again

There are, of course, people whose travel horror stories are much worse than what I’ve had to endure. People who were stranded in foreign countries for weeks because of the Icelandic volcano. The people with whom I’m staying now, my aunt and uncle, have been stranded for days in the past in Cuba and Turkey.

I, essentially, have the luxury of being stranded in a first-world, technologically advanced democracy of whose language I am a native speaker. And critically, I have a support network here. I don’t have to worry about finding the funds for somewhere to stay for an extra two nights; I don’t have to worry about it turning out that my aunt and uncle’s house has already been booked up by some of the other stranded tourists suddenly in need of accommodation.

And yet. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a trip where every single element of planning has encountered such sustained, unrelenting disruption. The refusal of the East Coast website to accept my credit card, thereby preventing me from booking train tickets in advance and costing me an extra sixty pounds. The failure of my flight itinerary on the way out here. And now, the cancellation of my flight back–a cancellation, I really do feel, that’s premature and an overreaction. JFK will be perfectly happily receiving flights by seven o’clock tomorrow night.

But my flight won’t be amongst them. I’ve now been rebooked for an itinerary on Tuesday. In addition to getting me home two days late, it also requires me to go through Chicago, added two hours to the time I’ll be spending in the air.

Honestly, if it weren’t for the fact that now L has to find somewhere to stow the children during an additional two work days, I’d be ecstatic at the extra couple of days here. But she does, and that’s pretty stressful.

And it means that I can now go to the League match tomorrow between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. Er, not that I finagled an itinerary change to make that happen.


Another United in DC

Us at the stadium

Saturday night, Man United and Barcelona played a rematch of the European Cup Final at the Washington Redskins’ stadium, in Maryland. Since Boy had been having so much fun on his soccer team, we’d bought tickets for the three of us as a birthday present to him.

We went with Jenny and Justin, parents of one of Boy’s friends from preschool, who apparently managed to sneak our camera into their possession at some point during the evening:

Jenny and Justin

Boy had a great time:


But the game did last till an hour after his bedtime, so it was unsurprising his good humour couldn’t last the whole night:

The three of us

Chicharito concussed himself during training on Tuesday and is out for a week, which is a shame, as he’s the player I was most looking forward to seeing. For Barcelona, Lionel Messi was also out–again, a shame.

But I did get to see the new goalkeeper, David De Gea, and I’m well satisfied with how he played.

The match itself bore a lot of similarities to when United and Barca met in the Final back in May. Barcelona had most of the ball, and played most of the match in United’s half. United’s chances were few and far between, but they took them when they created them. In May, that translated to a 3-1 Barca victory; on Saturday, it gave United a 2-1 win.

The match

The inability to hang onto possession is troubling. If United could just hang onto the ball, and keep play in midfield, they’d have completely shut Barcelona–the best team in the world–down. But more troubling to me, and related, is the lack of creativity. At halftime, with United leading 1-0, Man U had had two shots on goal, and Barcelona had had five. At halftime of the European Cup final, with the score at 1-1, Barca had had five shots on goal, and United had had one.

Both of United’s goals on Saturday were excellently-timed breakaway runs from strikers who had long balls played into their paths. That’s great, but you know what it means United proved completely unable to do? String a series of passes together and construct a steady buildup, culminating in a goal.

United plays celebrate Michael Owen's goal

It’s a pattern now, really, against Barcelona–they’ve dominated the match each of the last four times they’ve played United (Saturday, the final in May, the final in 2009 and the semi-finals in 2008). Two of those have been losses, two wins (though I don’t think Saturday, as a friendly, really counts). And it’s true that you don’t play the best team in the world every week–but United shouldn’t just be aspiring to beat the best team in the world; they should be aspiring to be the best team in the world.


5-1, 4-1, 3-1, 2-1

Over and over again Thursday night and Friday morning, my Twitter and Facebook streams lit up with the same, repeated message. The Florida basketball team had just eeked out a win against Brigham Young University in the Sweet Sixteen, and again and again I was informed, “The Florida Gators have NEVER lost in the Elite Eight.”

If I’d only seen it once or twice, I’d have probably just rolled my eyes, or even found it mildly amusing. But it wasn’t once or twice. I was bombarded with that one little trivium for almost 24 hours, and so I ended up going through a progressive series of reactions:

1. That’s a truly useless little statistic.

2. We’re not exactly Kentucky or Kansas or a school in the Research Triangle. (Though by the time Billy Donovan retires, we might be.) We’ve been to four Final Fours, so if we’re undefeated in the Elite Eight, that means we’ve been to (quick arithmetic on fingers) four Elite Eights. Maybe the reason we’ve never lost one is because we haven’t had terribly many opportunities to lose one.

3. Well, now the math thoughts are kicking in. Let’s see.

I’m pretty sure the Gators’s first Sweet Sixteen was the 1994 team who went to our first Final Four.* Which means I should be able to go through every UF trip to the Sixteen in my head.

The next time we were in the regional semi-finals was 1999, when we lost to Gonzaga in the midst of their first great Cinderella run. Since then, we’ve been to three more, all three of which resulted in a trip to the Final Four. So counting the win over BYU, that makes us 5-1 in the Sweet Sixteen. And after the game against Butler, we’ll either be 5-0 or 4-1 in the Elite Eight.

And then we come to the Final Fours. In 1994 we lost to Duke; in 1999, 2006 and 2007 we progressed to the national championship game. In our three national championship games, we lost to Michigan State in 1999, beat UCLA in 2006 and beat Ohio State in 2007.

So let’s see. 5-1. 5-0 or 4-1. 3-1. 2-1.

Well then, clearly it’s time to lose in the Elite Eight, for the symmetry.

Now, that whole thought process? I thought it to myself rather glibly, because I actually expected the Gators to win. (By contrast to the previous two rounds, where I’d gone in with a pessimistic feeling that we were going to end up being upset by, respectively, UCLA or BYU.) But when we ultimately went down in overtime, I silently thought at all the people who’d been so excited by our previously immaculate Elite Eight record, “Told you. Silently. In my head.”

It was pretty disappointing to see Florida lose that game, so to compound my misery, I hopped onto to see how badly I was doing in my bracket league. I’d been tied for last place after the Round of 64 and in second-last after the Round of 32. I was vaguely hopeful I’d worked my way up to third-last, or morbidly hopeful I’d managed to tie up dead last place.

Much to my surprise, I discovered that not only had I locked up second place, but that I was actually in the 97th percentile for ESPN’s entire bracket competition. And the remaining three of my Final Four teams were all in the three remaining Elite Eight games–and were in fact the higher-seeded team in each of those three games. I was looking forward to having successfully predicted three of the Final Four.

Well, thanks to VCU and Kentucky, it turns out I only predicted one team in the Final Four–UConn. But I’m still in ESPN’s 96th percentile, and I can presumably still improve on that position, since I have UConn winning the national championship. I can’t get to first place in our group, though, since my sister Claire also has UConn winning it all. But I still have the satisfaction that Claire and I were the only two people in our group to predict Kentucky beating Ohio State in the Sweet Sixteen.

Obviously, I’ll be cheering for UConn to beat Kentucky in the Final Four. And I’ll be cheering for VCU to beat Butler, both because I live in Virginia and because Shaka Smart was an assistant coach on the Gator basketball team that won consecutive national championships four years ago. If we end up with a UConn-VCU national championship game, I don’t know who I’ll be pulling for. More likely it’ll be UConn–a childhood spent in large part in Connecticut will do that to a person.


*When I looked it up later, I was wrong about that part. The Gators had previously been to the Sweet Sixteen in their first ever NCAA Tournament, in 1987. As a 6-seed, they beat 3-seed Purdue in the second round and lost to 2-seed Syracuse in the Sixteen. So we’re actually 6-1 in the regional semi-finals. Whatevs. Still a good point.

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.


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