Twenty-six years ago, number 23 launched himself from the free-throw line and produced one of the most indelible moments in NBA history. The result was a perfect score of 50, and another early milestone for the kid who would become ‘Air Jordan.’ Fast forward to this past February. A relatively unknown kid from the Congo also took off from the free-throw line sparking immediate comparisons to Jordan’s dunk and ecstatic praise from the commentators. He received a 45/50 and was eliminated in the first round of the competition.
It’s easy to pick apart the merits of both dunks above – Michael’s came in the final round against one of the other all-time great dunkers in Dominique Wilkins, while Serge Ibaka’s was the very first dunk of the competition. Michael dribbled up the court while Ibaka carried it like a loaf of bread. Michael had won rookie of the year the previous season and was already en route to greatness. Ibaka, not so much.
Regardless, both dunks were identical but they received very different scores. Why is that? Apparently, it’s not nearly as important how the dunk was executed but who executed it – or at least that’s how the judges saw it.
The same thought process afflicts the football community when great goals are scored by lesser known players. It seems such unexpected moments of brilliance are a mere anomaly, whereas we would come to expect the great players to produce great goals regularly. And therefore, for some reason or another, their goals reign supreme.
Take FIFA’s Puskás Award given annually to the best goal scored around the world. A shortlist of ten nominees is voted on by fans, which provides a telling perspective on their judgment absent of bribery and cheating – FIFA’s forte. It was first awarded in 2009 to Cristiano Ronaldo for this shocking display of audacity and power. Iniesta’s dramatic winner versus Chelsea came second, followed by Grafite’s slaloming run and back-heel against Bayern Munich. Any honest person looking at these goals would come to the conclusion that the third was head and shoulders above Iniesta’s and probably Ronaldo’s as well. I could name a whole slew of players who could tee up a shot from 40 yards and hammer it into the net past an unsuspecting goalie.
Iniesta’s received as many votes as it did because the goal came minutes from full time and put Barcelona in the Champions League final, two intangibles he had no control over leading to a more appropriate interpretation of the goal as a lucky “right place right time” event. “Who the hell is Grafite? Only been in Europe for two years?! I’m voting for the World Player of the Year instead.” I imagine that thought went through many of the voters’ minds. A guy who spent five of the previous seven seasons in Brazil and Korea. A guy who scored an unimpressive 34 goals in an even more unimpressive 101 appearances in those seven seasons simply got lucky. His goal was nonsense.
Now let’s switch the goal scorers – Grafite belted the long-range shot while Ronaldo twinkle toed through and embarrassed an entire Bayern defense. You really think anyone other than Ronaldo would have received votes?
Even more alarming in 2010, Hamit Altintop picked up a whopping 40.55% of the vote to blow away the competition with this volley. Linus Hallenius came second with only 13.23% of the vote for his own incredible volley while arguably the best goal of the lot, a back-heel volleyed flick from Matty Burrows received less than 8% of the vote. Altintop scored his for Germany. Hallenius plays for a small second division Swedish club, while Burrows is a part time player for a semi-professional club in Ireland. Assign either of the latter two goals to Arjen Robben or Messi or Ronaldo, and are we having this discussion?
A good friend was arguing with me that Eric Hassli’s wonder goal for MLS’ Vancouver Whitecaps over the weekend pales in comparison to Rooney’s bicycle kick against Manchester City. His exact email read as follows:
“and, i’ll go so far as to say it was more luck than skill in terms of where the ball went…Rooney is much more skilled, making his more of a realistic, serious chance, as opposed to this MLS scrub just ‘goin for it'”
We had gone back and forth about the difficulty of each goal, the timing, the league, the team. I knew it was only a matter of time before he would discredit the “MLS scrub.” But here is where his argument, and the widespread opinion that he conforms to, is wrong.
Most of the goals scored by Lionel Messi are extremely similar – a dizzying display of speed and touch followed by a gentle placement of the ball in the net. He is the best player in the world and we can expect to see such goals every time. Rooney is a phenomenal player, but how many of his goals are overhead bicycle kicks? How many goals in general, on any level in any league are overhead bicycle kicks? And for the players who do convert these rare goals, are we led to believe they can do it over and over again? Regardless of the quality of the player, a once in a lifetime goal like that is no more realistic if the scorer plays for Manchester United or for the worst team in Major League Soccer.
Eric Hassli knew exactly what he was doing, and with some luck and world class technique in the moment, he scored one of the best goals you’ll ever see. Wayne Rooney knew exactly what he was doing also, and with some luck to defy gravity and the physics of human contortion on a football pitch, he scored one of the best goals you’ll ever see.
Nine times out of ten Rooney wouldn’t convert that. Nine times out of ten Hassli boots that ball into the Pacific Ocean. Nine times out of ten Zidane isn’t scoring arguably the most famous goal in Champions League/European Cup history (with his weaker foot no less).
Viewers see goals as a manifestation of someone’s ability to convert the array of skill and talent in their arsenal into a piece of brilliance. However, if that brilliance is the product of a player who lacks an array of skill and talent, the goal loses its intrigue in the eye of the beholder. It is deemed less of a goal and that player gets cheated.
I can guarantee Rooney will win the next Puskás award for 2011. I can also guarantee that Rooney, with so much ability and more realistic chances of creating incredible goals, will never score a bicycle kick like that ever again.