I Ain't Afraid of No Goals

Human sacrifice, goals and saves living together – mass hysteria
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Something strange happened to the English League Cup last week. You could even say it was spooked. No, this isn't just a bad attempt to make an otherwise matter-of-fact opening paragraph appear more intriguing by making altogether too much of the chance simultaneity of the recently-played fourth round of the competition and Halloween. How dare you. No, there were odd things going on, alright: goals. Lots and lots of goals.Chelsea beat Manchester United 5-4 after extra time on the Wednesday. The night before, Arsenal came back from 4-0 down at Reading to draw 4-4 after 90 minutes, before winning 7-5 (sic) after 120. This wasn't normal. But it was fun, like those blood sugar spikes and subsequent blissful diabetic comas from your bygone trick-or-treating career. (Yeah, yeah.)

Still, those who have narrowed their eyes at hobbling wisecracks about soccer's gaunt, undernourished scorelines might have had cause to blush. Those who say such things might point out the contrast between this small glut and the fact that the goals-per-game average of top-level football is less than three. If you spend your leisure hours on a twenty-two-player version of Waiting for Godot, no wonder you come over all giddy if G. bellows from the wings. In the anglophone media, any such game is referred to as an "x-goal thriller", where x > 5. In other words, repeated exposure to high doses of low scoring leaves you so bewildered by a surfeit that you can't process it in any detail more meaningful than "Goals! HOLY SHIT!!!"

Our quipping goon is welcome to his ignorance; leave him be with his delusions of discernment, never to feel the heft of a goal. This heft comes from the scarcity, of course. But that would be mere economic theory without the swathes in between the goals: those average long half-hours, stretched or squashed, in which nothing happens, yet everything happens. Just the threat of a goal plays on your mind. You know a goal might come, but you have no idea how. It might flow logically from the game as it's played, or might seem almost like a random occurrence. A team can graft for 89 minutes for one precious goal only to see their feckless opponents head straight back up the other end of the pitch and equalise, as if anyone could do it if they just put their minds to it. A goal might be crafted or cobbled together, ornate or brutal—or, most often, a combination. You never know for certain when there's a goal until the instant it crosses the line; tell-tale signs only tell the whole tale in retrospect. Even when there are none to be had, the very thought of goals keeps you on your toes. And when they do happen, they matter. In a world sick with extraneous drama (football's latest offering: the allegedly racist referee!), a goal is almost a relief, a reminder of how joyful a sport can be at heart despite its attempts at self-sabotage. And if one goal makes a match wobble on its axis, a load of goals can send it into a new orbit altogether.

For all that you revel in such high jinks, though, there is too a twinge of anxiety. Or even a full-on seizure in some. The goal, the very currency of the sport, is something to be, if not exactly feared, then disrespected a little, roughed up and reminded who's boss. For if we watch sport in part for the joy of seeing something being done very well, and if soccer naturally favours defence, doesn't an abundance of goals diminish the game? Won't such hyper-inflation devalue the currency, even if only temporarily? Before he became the late Italian football writer Gianni Brera, the Italian football writer Gianni Brera argued that the perfect match would end 0-0. Absolute zero, one might call it. (Professor Wiki describes this as "the theoretical temperature at which entropy reaches its minimum value." "Neither keeper has had much to do," the commentator says, as the heat death of the universe draws ninety minutes nearer.) When such silliness as, say, Reading-Arsenal happens, there will have been purists of a sort watching, barely able to contain themselves, their brains knotting, their fists tightening, their mouths spitting out enamel dust. Football wants to be goalless. Defence is the natural order of things. If three series of Yes, Minister and two of Yes, Prime Minister have taught us anything, it's that you don't fuck with the natural order of things.

Furthermore, soccer's low scoring is a point of pride. It distinguishes the sport; it sets it apart from and above others. There's a hint of masochism about it, which serves as a dare: how much random nothingness can you take? It covers the world's most popular game—the people's game, the simplest game—in a shroud of the arcane. Mysteries, initiation and such like: if you don't get it, you don't get it (as the writer said to the quipping goon). Goalsgoalsgoals are all well and good, but Christmas comes but once a year, and Santa Claus isn't even the real son of God.

For what it's worth (and do let's haggle), I get it. I enjoy a good bit of stoicism as much as the next philosopher. In fact, I can go through stoicism and emerge on the other side, pointing at you and laughing. I've already confessed my enjoyment of the infamous Real Madrid-Barcelona 2011 Champions League semi-final, first leg. Moreover, I may have been the only non-Spaniard to enjoy the 2010 World Cup of Capoeira final between Spain and the Netherlands. But my tastes are sickeningly elastic. I love the variety. The notion of having a "type", an ideal kind of game against which I measure all others, strikes me as the stuff of utopian fools. Or maybe just people who are better at making their minds up than me. Either way, I love it all, and I want it all. I don't want the game to clog up the arteries; nor do I want it refined so much you need to wear protective gear just to be allowed to be in its presence. It's the balance that makes it work.

But I wonder: is there balance? Take Chelsea's madcap Champions League run last season. Chances are it will be remembered for their extraordinary defensiveness in the semi-final against Barcelona and the final against Bayern Munich, which was practically audacious. But there was also that fantastic tie against Napoli in the last sixteen. Chelsea lost the first leg 3-1 and came back next time with a new manager and a 4-1 extra-time win. Neither defence was absolutely catastrophic in those two games. But they were just a notch above, and it meant that more than usual, there was a constant sense that at any time, something fun could happen. And it did, frequently. You got that wonderful feeling that neither team was at all in control of the game, that they had to be fully on their mettle to prevent the beast overwhelming them. And so you, the spectator, were never in control, could never dare to take in the whole picture because you knew you'd probably have to throw it away soon.

And you—okay, I—got the feeling, like after those League Cup games last week, that that kind of discombobulation, in its pure essence, is just that tad too rare. If you couldn't come to terms with low scoring, and even like it, you wouldn't have lasted long as a football fan. But I'd like just a little more of the mad stuff, the silliness—a little more failing of the brakes, more games where the outcome isn't decided by one team's well-earned dominance but by the final whistle arbitrarily putting a stop to the carnage. I offer no solution to this problem, if a problem is what it is (increase the size of the goals, reduce the size of the teams, plant randomly activating booby traps, etc.). I'm just registering a sentiment, popping a note into the suggestion box of whichever dozy deity is in charge of this nonsense. I want to go on a mystery tour. I want to feel the fear, and to see it in the eyes of the players on both teams. (Not a Halloween reference, I swear.)

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