After awhile, it started to look like Italy was going to live out one of those nightmare scenarios that sometimes get big countries bounced from international tournaments. The Azzuri had controlled their knockout-round match against Austria fairly well, spent 90 minutes creating chances and firing shots that were just inches away from finding their way into the opposing net, and all they had to show for it was a 0-0 scoreline as the game shifted into extra time. All it would have taken was one successful Austrian counter attack, a few more missed Italian opportunities, and one of the most dominant teams from the group stage would be going home. Then Federico Chiesa did something magical.
The 23-year-old Juventus forward entered the game in the 84th minute, and five minutes into extra time, he did this:
Soccer can be pretty aggravating to watch sometimes. The game is so hard, and played at such inhuman speeds, that finding a steady supply of thrills in a single game can feel like an act of compromise. You end up hooting at deft turns in the midfield that lead to fizzled attacks, clapping for masterful dribbles that lead to the ball being kicked harmlessly out of bounds, and gasping at shots that miss the top corner by six inches. These moments don’t ultimately change the final outcome of the match, but once you understand how difficult it is to even participate in a high-level soccer game, you can’t help but appreciate them.
And then something like Chiesa’s goal happens, and there’s no need for compromise. Chiesa’s goal was the product of three genius-level touches—on the head to bring the ball under control, on the right foot to snatch it away from the recovering defender, and on the left foot to fire it past the keeper at a tight angle—that would have earned a polite applause from the crowd had they occurred on their own and not led to a goal. That Chiesa executed all three in a matter of seconds and got the ball into the net puts his goal somewhere in the realm of the miraculous. Repeat that sequence 1,000 times, and chances are that Chiesa would lose the ball out of bounds, have it taken from him by a defender, or fire it wide of the net in 996 of them. But sometimes everything lines up just right, and you get to see three perfect touches and a goal, and soccer is the best damn sport.