Rating Goals -- Not That Easy

By Paul Gardner

Deciding what is a great goal and what is merely a good goal -- even to the point of defining the greatest goal in the history of soccer -- is all part of being besotted with the sport. It leads to discussions, disagreements, heated arguments, maybe fisticuffs. And of course nothing is ever resolved because there is no objective way that the merits of a goal can be measured and -- more conclusively -- soccer people are not objective anyway.

The people in the soccer community who ought to be neutral, of course, are the journalists. But I know from my own experiences that this is not so easy, however hard I might try to rule out personal biases and likes and dislikes. I’ve been trying to do that for over 50 years now, I haven’t always managed it, and am now seriously wondering why I bothered.

When I started as a journalist -- you know, young, raw, eager, knew everything -- I think I genuinely believed in the existence of the objective story. Or at least, I believed that was something to be aimed for. Something almost honorable, something that allowed me to consider that what I was doing was worthwhile, and that also allowed me the snobby pleasure of looking down on those who wrote for the so-called gutter press.

That journalistic guidelines -- and standards -- have deteriorated in the past 50 years, I have no doubt. But then, doesn’t everyone age with the conviction that the modern world is going to hell?

Probably. But I have some specifics, here. The written word, the published written word, is no longer dominated by professional journalists. Their output is now dwarfed by what can be read on the Internet. I’m talking mainly, I suppose, about bloggers. Some of whom are great writers, some of whom really know their stuff, some of whom are reliable. And some of whom, I suppose, are paid for what they write.

But there are no standards for bloggers -- none that I can see, apart from the libel laws. I make that sound like a terrible state of affairs, but is it? The tremendous freedom to air, online, just about everything has to bring with it enormous advantages as well as minuses.

Leaving me, I must admit, with no new ethics to practice, and clinging rather uncertainly to those I grew up with. But, for sure, the very idea of objectivity -- once such a shining ambition -- has been thoroughly deconstructed. And, hell, why didn’t I realize this 50 years ago? Of course everyone -- even a smart-ass young journalist -- is a bubbling mass of opinions and biases, conscious and unconscious. How can they all be overcome? Well, they can’t.

But ... surely, if there is no longer any such thing as an absolute truth (and I’m really quite pleased to hear that, it does water down the arrogance factor) -- there must still be comparative truth. Surely, to paraphrase Orwell, some facts must be more factual than others? It must be possible to lay bare the untruths, the errors and the frivolous inventions. I’d like to think so. I’ll make that stronger -- I insist on thinking so.

But even that is not as straightforward as it sounds, because we are, in many cases, dealing with opinions. I have a couple of examples here, recent ones. Firstly, what I consider to be an error -- and given that it occurred on television, one that should have been quickly corrected.

This was the ESPN broadcast of the L.A. Galaxy-Seattle Sounders game on May 26. In the 12th minute, the Galaxy opened the scoring with a peach of a goal scored by Sean Franklin. He applied a pretty simple finishing touch, but the heart of the goal was a perfect give-and-go between Robbie Keane and Marcelo Sarvas. Keane, having passed to Sarvas, darted into the area to receive the return ball, which Sarvas delivered to perfection, right to Keane’s foot, placing him unmarked inside the Seattle area. Keane maneuvered the ball beautifully with three quick touches on the run, then sent it low across the goal for Franklin to guide it home.

“Exquisite” was how commentator Adrian Healey described it, and he was right. He had mentioned Sarvas, but had quickly transferred all his attention to Keane. Healey’s buddy in the booth, Taylor Twellman, lavished praise on Keane: “Robbie Keane with all the approach work,” followed by “that is all Robbie Keane out wide.” And then, unclearly, “all Robbie Keane using the movement off the ball to create space for himself.” No mention of Sarvas.

Obviously, a give-and-go must involve two players, so I cannot see Twellman’s version of the goal as simply all Robbie Keane being anything other than an error. A straight factual error. One that needed a quick correction, which it never got. And, really, a strange error for Twellman -- who knows a lot about forward inter-play in the penalty area -- to make.

The second example comes from the MLS’s own website, in a report on the Dallas-San Jose game on May 25th. We are told: “... in the 33rd minute, FC Dallas rookie center back and 2013 MLS SuperDraft first-round pick Walker Zimmerman, making his first career start, put his mark on the game by starting the sequence that led to the game's decisive goal.”

What Zimmerman did was head away a cross, looping the ball up in the air -- it fell to his teammate David Ferreira. It did not look like a carefully aimed pass. But even if it was, what followed, duly recorded in the same game report, makes a mockery of the writer’s own claim that, with this one header, Zimmerman “put his mark on the game.” Ferreira “then carried the ball 40 yards upfield before passing to forward Fabian Castillo. The young Colombian cut around San Jose’s Jason Hernandez, and curled a well-placed left-footed shot around Jon Busch and into the bottom left corner of the net ...”

So, a 40-yard run with the ball from Ferreira, during which he held off one defender and outpaced another, a nice pass to Castillo -- and then a sharp move from Castillo to get around Hernandez, and the perfect shot, just out of reach of goalkeeper Jon Busch’s dive, just inside the far post. And after all that, it was Zimmerman who “put his mark on the game”?

That can hardly be classified as an error, it belongs in the “frivolous invention” category. It’s a nice, if undeserved, compliment for a rookie, but it shares a fault with Twellman’s adulation of Keane, in that they both pass over vital contributions from un-named players.

I think I’ve managed to include all their key players. But ... I have -- deliberately -- omitted a negative contribution from Seattle’s Servando Carrasco, who allowed himself to be nutmegged by Sarvas’ radar-pass. Because I’m willing to allow that credit should go to Sarvas for deceiving Carrasco with his movement.

There you have it -- my version of the goals, and, I guess, my attempt to be objective about what’s happening before my eyes. Whether or not that is as important as I still think it is, I’m not so sure these days.

6 comments about "Rating Goals -- Not That Easy".
  1. Richard Nathan, May 31, 2013 at 12:39 a.m.

    A truly wonderful goal by Sarvas, Keane and Franklin, but apparently not sufficiently exquisite to be nominated as goal of the week. Speed and power seem to be preferred over brilliant teamwork. I guess it's all of a piece with commentary favoring hustle and athleticism, apparently over vision and skill.

  2. Rick Figueiredo, May 31, 2013 at 9:38 a.m.

    "Rating Goals -- Not That Easy" should have been titled: "Hey, Let's Talk About Me!"

  3. Rick Figueiredo, May 31, 2013 at 9:42 a.m.

    Back to the subject matter: The truly greatest goal, even better than Diego Maradona's goal against England, is one you may have to search for in archives: In 1989 Brasil played Argentina in the Copa America. Bebeto's goal. I have watched this over 150 times and each time it still gives me chills. Very seldom does one see this type of shot. It is an in the air outside right foot cut shot with body leaning to left. FIND IT. IT IS WELL WORTH WATCHING. Negreti's goal in 1986 against Bulgaria also fabulous.

  4. Ramon Creager, May 31, 2013 at 3:44 p.m.

    Bias is an interesting thing. We all have them, and they color what we say and write, as well as what we hear and see. So it is worse that useless to believe that we can put our biases aside, lest we believe this delusion and perceive what our biases tell us as fact. The very best we can hope for is to recognize that these biases exist in us (yes, every one of us), and to be conscious of them in order to avoid making these errors.

  5. Ramon Creager, May 31, 2013 at 3:53 p.m.

    And speaking of biases, I hate to point this out, but I believe it to be relevant: Sarvas, Ferreira and Castillo are all Latino players, Keane and Zimmerman obviously not. I do believe there is a subconscious bias amongst the English speaking commentariat at work here. (It is subconscious in most cases; They will tell you in all sincerity that they aren't biased, and I'd believe them. Twellman especially is someone I respect for his thoughtfulness and knowledge of the game.) These two incidents are by no means exceptional. How many times have I watched EPL games where the foreign (especially Latino) player "makes a meal out of light contact" but the English or Scottish player, in identical circumstances, "couldn't keep his feet after heavy contact." And how many times have I had to mute the sound on FoxSoccerToGo after hearing about the "hash" the Spanish referee made, and how a proper English one was needed for such an important game, or some such nonsense masquerading as informed comment (several times in the UCL, notably Celtic vs Juve 1st leg round of 16, and any game refereed by Howard Webb). And, pop quiz: if it were the English winning the latest Euro with the the tiki-taka style, would we have heard how boring and predictable etc. etc. it was?

  6. beautiful game, June 1, 2013 at 10:20 a.m.

    Twellman and all of his ex-MLS buddies on the TV soccer commentary stable have one thing in common, promotion of MLS and bequeathing high praise for mediocrity on the pitch, while suffocating the game with MLB-type banter throughout the game.

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