It was Pele who started the “soccer is beauty” theme. He titled his autobiography -- one of them, anyway -– “My Life and the Beautiful Game.”
That was back in the 1970s, and it seemed so right at the time. Pele did wonderful things on the field, his play was full of creative moments and thrilling touches -- and there was really no other word for the soccer played by the Brazil team he led to victory in the 1970 World Cup ... it was beautiful to behold.
We are told: A thing of beauty is a joy for ever. Well, maybe. The words are those of the poet John Keats. They have the brevity and clarity of poetry ... but not, I think, the beauty
That word “thing” seems altogether wrong. Not a poetic word. Leonardo’s Mona Lisa? Michelangelo’s David? These are things? Well, maybe they are. Maybe so. A painting and a sculpture, not real people, simply art.
And “forever” takes in more than we would allow today. We have come to admit that art is not forever, that beauty lies “in the eye of the beholder,” that it changes from place to place, from era to era, from culture to culture.
Pele’s beautiful game still exists today -- the mantle is now worn by Barcelona -- but it is a struggle to keep beauty alive in an increasingly pragmatic and dollar-driven sport.
What we can hope for, to light up the harshness, are moments that are a joy forever.
We got one recently, thanks to Michael Bradley. That superb goal against Mexico. A goal to savor, to cherish. The setting, of course, was nigh perfect. A packed Azteca, sunny, colorful, noisy, tense -- as ever.
But I don’t want to praise Bradley’s goal simply because it was scored against a dramatic background. The goal itself was what stirred me, so wonderfully fashioned by Bradley, who, in the space of a few seconds got all his soccer skills and instincts to react in perfect unison.
The quick decisive movement to pick off a loose ball on the halfway line, then one touch -- just one -- that put the ball where Bradley could chase it at full speed, where no defender could get at it … Bradley took 10 running paces, time for him to sight that Ochoa the Mexican goalkeeper was way off his line ... and then something else, maybe something like soccer antennae, the apparent ease with which Bradley made his choice -- no hesitation, no confusion -- because timing was now crucial ... all Bradley had to do -- now that he had outpaced the Mexican defenders -- was to loop the ball over Ochoa. From 35 yards.
All he had to do? Because that is what Bradley made it look like, so easy was his shot on goal. A clean shot, hit with force, but not so hard that it went over the bar, not so soft that Ochoa had time to back up and corral it. That was the shape of the goal, a beautiful arc, one of the most satisfying of geometric forms.
Ochoa played his part, his athletic backward leap added to the drama for a second until the ball sailed untouched into the goal and suddenly it looked almost like slow motion as the ball hit the net and rolled contentedly down to the ground.
It had taken all of four seconds, during which Bradley had only two touches on the ball. Four seconds that gave the goal the added beauty of revealing, clearly, its birth, and then the suspense as the ball soared toward the goal. So much happened in those four seconds, so much that could have gone wrong in exquisite timing and delicate skills. Bradley got everything right.
A goal to remember. A thing of beauty for sure, and a joy, if not forever, then I think for a long time. Replay technology is hardly a fitting accompaniment to the romance of a perfect goal, but it will make sure Michael Bradley’s beautiful goal is not quickly forgotten.