By Paul Gardner
I was telling you about the weirdo in the Anthony Burgess novel who kept dreaming up absurd soccer scores -- Fulham 19 West Ham 3 indeed!
But maybe this past weekend the guy wouldn’t have seemed quite so batty. Goals were in the air. I mean, Red Bulls 4, Chicago 5? New England 5, Seattle 0? What the hell kind of scores are those? Amazingly, they’re real scores.
Nine goals in one game -- all of that resulted in a one-goal win for Chicago. So that scoreline could have been 0-1. Same result. But a very different game. The excitement built into that 4-5 scoreline, the constantly changing expectations of the fans, the heightened emotions that come with the joy or the desperation of goals ... nine of them, nine climactic moments.
It’s a measure of the distortion that has been allowed to mar our game that one feels almost apologetic about that scoreline. One feels it needs defending. I’m determined to proclaim the thrills of a memorable game. Yet, as I set out to do that, I’m conscious of a part of me that undermines my enthusiasm, a part that tries to insist that 5-4 is not a scoreline that can be taken seriously.
I shall resist that feeling -- but why is it there? How is it that the most enjoyable part of the sport, the scoring of goals, the part that provides soccer with virtually all of its great moments, has fallen under such a cloud that one feels a vague discomfort when singing its praises?
There is, for a start, that rallying cry “defense wins championships.” I don’t know where that came from -- football, I suspect -- but it is particularly pernicious when applied to soccer. Inevitably, it has insinuated itself solidly into the fabric of college soccer. After all, it soundslike some thought has gone into it, it sounds intelligent ... the sort of clever thinking that you might expect from academia.
Clever thinking that has saddled the college sport with an apparently endless series of decidedly-less-than-riveting finals.
Since 1998, there have been 15 NCAA Division I college finals. The total number of goals scored in those 15 games is 25 -- not even two per game. Over half the games have featured just one goal -- or, in 2009, no goals at all.
Defense indeed. It is from college coaches and college players that I most persistently hear this drivel. Why is it that another slogan -- cliche, I suppose -- namely, that “offense is the best form of defense” -- is not so widely quoted?
If we must soak our sport in silly slogans, then it surely makes sense to see which slogan fits the most successful teams. Would anyone call Spain a defensive team? I’d say the “offense is best” slogan applies very neatly to Spain and Barcelona.
Actually, scoring goals has suddenly acquired at least a temporary respectability. While the MLS scoreboards were exploding with goals last weekend, the English Premier League was decided, the title went to Manchester City, scorer of 102 goals, the most in the league, In second place came the next highest scoring team, Liverpool with 101 goals. In Germany, Bayern Munich romped home with 94 goals, 14 more than its closest rival.
Juventus is the champion in Italy with 77 goals, five ahead of second-place Roma with one game to play. In Spain, things are different: Atletico Madrid has scored only 76 goals compared with Barcelona’s 99, but the entire season comes down to this weekend’s game between the two.
Barcelona must win to take the championship. If it wins, the teams are level on points and it will be goals that decide in favor of Barcelona, which has a goal difference of 67 compared to Atletico’s rather puny 51.
None of which actually proves anything. But it helps to clear the air of the brainless notion that defense is all that matters. Perhaps -- though this might be asking too much of people who have somehow managed to find superior merit in playing destructive, defensive soccer -- there might also be a trend toward playing more inventive, creative, attractive, goalscoringsoccer?
Soccer that is enjoyable to watch, and soccer that looks as though it is enjoyable to play. Take that Red Bulls-Chicago game. Who could not be entertained by that non-stop attacking action? It began with Harry Shipp’s fourth minute goal for Chicago, and the tit-for-tat pattern was quickly set when Tim Cahill equalized for the Bulls just two minute later. The game pulsed with action and potential right up to the final moment, when Bradley Wright-Phillips pulled off a great volley that for a heart-stopping moment looked like the tying goal. It wasn’t, as the ball rocketed straight into the arms of Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson.
A wonderful, skillful climactic-anti-climactic ending to a hell of a game. A game that owed its excitement to the determination of two teams to go forward, looking to score goals.
Read "Goals (Part 1): Dreadful decision from EPL ref Dowd nixes Suarez's brilliant record-breaking goal" HERE.