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Soccer

When A Goal Is A Work Of Art

Manchester United's Portuguese midfielder Bruno Fernandes (R) scores his team's first goal during the English Premier League football match between Manchester United and Everton at Old Trafford in Manchester, north west England, on February 6, 2021.
Photo by Michael Regan/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The scoring of a goal is inherently beautiful. Getting a ball into a guarded net using only your feet or forehead is an act so difficult, so infrequent, and so impactful that even the ugly and unintentional ones have an elegance of a sort. Of course not every goal is equally beautiful, and, accounting for individual taste, there are as many different criteria for judging the greatest of goals as there are different kinds of goals. For my money, what all the most beautiful goals share, and what elevates the best of them to art, can be found in this Bruno Fernandes goal from Saturday:

Like all great works of art, Fernandes’s goal transcends its context. I could tell you that the goal, scored right before halftime, gave Manchester United a commanding 2–0 lead on Everton, which provisionally took the Red Devils level on points with league leaders Manchester City. I could also tell you that United proceeded to let Everton back into the match, and when the final whistle blew all United had to show for it was a demoralizing 3–3 draw. But the awe of Fernandes’s shot, the casual way he up and decided to attempt something spectacular, the very-not-shot-like way he struck the ball, the ball’s speed and arc as it carried high over Robin Olsen’s hopelessly outstretched hand, his sheepish, disbelieving, somewhat muted celebration—all of that is there to enjoy over and above any context, and it will thrive in this context-free fashion for years in the form of highlight videos.

Another aspect of great art is ambiguity. I’ve watched this play over and over and over, and yet I’m still not completely certain he even meant it. I’m positive Fernandes’s first thought when he received the ball and spotted teammate Edinson Cavani’s run was to cross it to the striker, which he then thought better of and decided to pump fake instead. After that feint, when he takes another touch, raises his head for a beat, and then hits the ball, his intention is less clear.

Did Fernandes, during that final glimpse of the pitch, decide that the readjusted defense offered him a better opportunity to hit a cross onto Cavani’s head, and in his zeal to get the ball there hard and fast, did he overhit it a little, only to watch it fly into the net instead? Or did that last peek reveal that Olsen had drifted a little too close to the near post in anticipation of the feinted cross, and that Tom Davies’s attempted block of the cross that didn’t come had opened up a direct line toward the far side of the net, and so the Portuguese midfielder thought Hell, I think I can get it in there myself and clubbed in his cross/chip/shot? Does his happy but bashful celebration mean he wasn’t actually trying to shoot there, or does it imply that he was going for goal but did not really expect his effort to actually work? I want to believe he meant it, and I do believe he did, but I’m neither sure of his intent nor if his intent matters at all. (For his part, Fernandes himself refused to shed any light on his authorial intent, waving away the chance to discuss the goal in a postgame interview by claiming that because United failed to win he wasn’t much interested in discussing the goal.)

If there’s a single aspect of the goal that makes it of the finest kind, it’s the way it expresses Fernandes’s individual ingenuity. Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of old highlights of ’80s and ’90s soccer recently—in part due to the death of Diego Maradona—but I find myself wistful for the freer, less refined style of play back then. Soccer today is probably better than it’s ever been before, thanks to the expert training in the youth ranks, the professionalism of its players, the depth of tactical knowledge and sophistication of its coaching staffs, and the medical, nutritional, and exercise advances. But along with all those improvements seems to have come an unmistakable homogenization.

Players from what were once vastly different cultures increasingly play in similar ways; academy products are drilled in “the right way” to receive a ball or dribble a ball or pass a ball or shoot a ball; and elite teams often play rigid styles that restrict individual invention and expression in favor of efficient, repeatable, predictable patterns. The effect of all this threatens to create a contest of automatons, where players behave exactly as instructed to produce results exactly as expected. It feels like there are fewer and fewer anarchic geniuses who are empowered to react, to choose, to play, to break free of the manager’s strict system and go where they want, to adapt to problems on the fly and respond to them with never-before-seen solutions of brilliance, without constraining themselves for even a second wondering whether their academy coaches would approve of such an inefficient technique like, say, Romário’s famous toe poke. All goals may be beautiful, but they are infinitely more beautiful when they bear the indelible fingerprints of their authors.

That is why the Fernandes goal strikes me as so particularly exhilarating. Shooting from the edge of the box at a weird angle like that was not part of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s gameplan, and I’m confident no coach taught Fernandes how or when pop a shot like that. It wouldn’t surprise me if Fernandes himself had never attempted anything like that before in his life, even in training. Instead, a player found himself in a situation that posed a certain set of obstacles, and he responded to it with an impromptu, instinctual act of skill, inspiration, and imagination all his own, and the result was a delight to all who saw it live and the millions more who have seen and will see the replay. Hang it in the damn Louvre.

Correction (11:14 a.m. ET): This post has been corrected to note that Robin Olsen, not Jordan Pickford, was in goal for Everton.