In the 68th minute of today’s tight and unspeakably boring Champions League tie between Atlético Madrid and Chelsea, Olivier Giroud scored one of the prettiest goals of his life (which is saying something).
Making a run into Atleti’s penalty area, Giroud looked over his shoulder and saw a ball looping through the air, tantalizingly close by. With little time to act and no good way to get a traditional shot off, Giroud corkscrewed his body around to address the falling ball, leapt into the air with his back to the goalmouth, threw his left foot over his head and into the ball, giving the ball a firm bicycle-kicking smack that sent it bouncing past Jan Oblak and into the net. He’d just scored a crucially important goal, on the big stage, using one of the most aesthetically pleasing techniques in the sport.
Normally a goal like that would’ve resulted in an explosion of joy from Giroud, his teammates, and the thousands of traveling Chelsea fans in attendance, to say nothing of the millions of spectators watching at home. Instead, the line judge immediately ruled the goal out for what in live time looked like an accurate offside call:
Before the action could start back up following the-wondergoal-that-wasn’t, the head ref stood around in that now famous “concerned face with a finger pressing the headset headphone into his ear” stance, indicating that VAR was taking a look at the play. It wasn’t at all clear what exactly VAR was investigating, since the broadcast director didn’t show any replays of the incident. I was busy typing away in the Defector soccer Slack channel, complaining about how we’d just been robbed of the only lively moment of this awful match, when finally, just about three minutes after Giroud put the ball in the back of the net, the referee whistled that VAR had concluded its assessment and—shocker—had decided the goal would count.
As confusing as this eventuality was as a spectator, even more jarring was watching the Chelsea players manfully attempting to get excited about that thing from a few minutes back that they didn’t think actually happened:
It wasn’t until the 88th minute that broadcast finally ran the definitive replay showing that Mario Hermoso, not Mason Mount, had clearly made the touch that sent the ball Giroud’s way, thus making him onside.
Giroud’s goal wound up the only one of the game, giving Chelsea a huge 1–0 “away” win. (Scare quotes because the match was actually held on neutral ground, since Spanish COVID-19 quarantine laws prevented it from being held in Madrid.) Though the goal may well determine who goes through to the next round in Europe’s premier tournament, I’ll remember it most for its encapsulation of the bizarre state of soccer in 2021: a jaw-dropping feat of athleticism that at first didn’t happen, then after three minutes did happen, the muted and confused celebration and mourning of which happened on delay inside a silent and empty stadium in Bucharest.