If the recent international break was good for anything, it was last-minute goals. Mohamed Salah’s nerveless stoppage-time penalty against Congo guaranteed Egypt a place at next summer’s World Cup and, on the same day, Kendall Waston’s late header earned Costa Rica the draw with Honduras which stamped his country’s passport for Russia. On Tuesday night, Roman Torres’ 88th minute goal would also secure Panama a place in the main draw. For all the native complaints about how dull and lifeless England’s campaign has been, the past fortnight has actually been rich with sporting drama.
There’s a magic to a last-minute goal and that’s obviously particularly true when a World Cup place is at stake.
But it’s something which survives under ordinary circumstances, too A late winner or equaliser doesn’t necessarily need anything as grandiose as a trophy or tournament qualification to be memorable, nor does it need to be framed by south American commentary or local delirium.
The search for the perfect late goal does involve a criteria, though.
1. There must be a struggle
It’s a moment which should be earned. In a sporting sense, football is unique in its refusal to reward superior sides. Teams don’t have to have played well to be victorious and goals aren’t necessarily a repayment for what has come before. But they’re better when they are.
If there’s one criticism of Sergio Aguero’s famous, Premier League-securing slalom through the Queens Park Rangers defence, for instance, it’s the speed with which it happens. It was too easy. Within minutes City had gone from being 1-2 down to 3-2 up and between Edin Dzeko’s equaliser and Aguero’s winner QPR – notoriously – offered next to no resistance.
No, there must be a struggle. For the emotion to uncork with the right drama, the bottle has to be shaken first.
Tottenham’s one-all draw with Manchester United in January 2013 wasn’t a game of any great significance. It was played in steady snowfall and, although Robin van Persie gave United a first-half lead, Spurs were comfortably the better side. To this day, it remains one of David De Gea’s finer shot-stopping performance in the Premier League and only Clint Dempsey, with the last chance of the game, denied him a clean-sheet. The weather, the time on the clock, the little boy who runs to the front of the stand to celebrate with Dempsey; it’s a vivid portrayal of what a release of pressure looks like.
2. The more unusual the scorer the better.
Minutes 0-to-89 belong to the skill players. Everything beyond that is a free-for-all, a time when agendas are replaced by hope and goals are welcome from anywhere and everyone.
That means that the more unlikely the hero, the better the moment. Fabio Grosso’s 119th minute goal against Germany in the 2006 World Cup semi-final, for instance, or the Sergio Roberto re-direct which completed Barcelona’s comeback against Paris Saint-Germain in last season’s Champions League. Replace those two scorers with Alessandro Del Piero and Lionel Messi and, great though the moments would remain and of equal significance though they would still be, they would lose something.
The key is expectation. David Beckham’s free-kick against Greece in 2001? Terrific, but given the distance and angle, who didn’t see that coming. Steven Gerrard’s thunderous FA Cup Final equaliser against West Ham regrettably falls into a similar category; when the ball dropped to him in that position, the watching public surely knew it was destined for the net. Messi in the Bernabeu last April? The same. A thrilling exclamation point at the end of a wonderful game, but as inevitable as daybreak once Jordi Alba had cut the ball back across the Madrid box.
Dennis Bergkamp in Marseille? Andres Iniesta at Stamford Bridge? Too good, too clean. Too much like divine intervention.
What we’re looking for is less Gareth Bale against West Ham in 2013, with that perfect trajectory and laser-like flight which he managed to normalise, and more Laurent Blanc against Paraguay in the last-sixteen of the 1998 World Cup. The knock-down, the thump past a desperate Jose Luis Chilavert, the socks at half-mast.
Or something like this, by Julio Gomez in the semi-finals of 2011 u17 World Cup, which is worthy through circumstance.
Gomez is still just 23, but is showing no signs of having anything other than a mundane career; he’s scored just five times as a senior professional. Regardless, he will always have this – and what makes it belong here is its raffishness and context. After an early collision with future Liverpool fringe player Samed Yesil, Gomez was bleeding profusely and would have been replaced had the Mexicans not been out of substitutes. But he continued, was bandaged up, and produced one of the scruffiest bicycle kicks that you’re ever likely to see. And sent the Estadio Corona wild in the process.
(Watch the number 17 during the celebrations).
3. Too much style or finesse is bad.
Let’s start by saying that this goal by Kiko, which won Spain the gold medal at the 1992 Olympics, represents a vague stylistic ideal:
It has the chaos factor, but also the aesthetic of a team trying to punch through a wall. One swing of the axe by Luis Enrique, one more from Kiko. Try, try and try again. This wasn’t modern day Spain, the perennial contender, but a group of u23 players trying to achieve their country’s first tangible international success since the 1964 European Championships.
The below, Landon Donovan’s winner against Algeria in 2010 (which secured the United States’ passage from their World Cup group), is also a fine example. It may not have anything like the gravitas of Kiko’s goal, but it’s a similar mix of heart-thumping national pride, drama, and that essential scrappiness.
It’s almost perfect. The US break out of their own half with urgency, the crowd’s anticipation rising above the low drone of the vuvuzelas, and it leads to that tantalising moment when Clint Dempsey’s shot is saved and the ball just sits on the edge of the six-yard box, strewn Algerian defenders helpless to prevent what’s about to happen.
Crucially, it wasn’t too neat. It had no airbrushed quality and the goal itself was just a reward for the Americans’ urgent football. No magic, no tricks.
4. Defensive mistakes ruin everything.
No. Not under any circumstances.
Last minute goals are supposed to be about achievement and glory, not toe-curling embarrassment on behalf of some hapless defender of goalkeeper. While it’s accepted that some kind of defensive breakdown has to occur for the scores to change at all, an outright mistake has a polluting effect which crowd or the viewer doesn’t really know how to respond to.
Think of Laura Bassett’s own-goal in the semi-final of the 2015 Women’s World Cup or Petr Kouba’s mishandling of Olivier Bierhoff’s snapshot in the final of Euro ’96. The result is the same – opposition players celebrate, coaches and substitutes flood onto the pitch – but something is clearly missing. Instead of the resulting energy being channelled towards the scorer, the moment or even the achievement, it’s diluted by collective empathy.
Not good. The sporting equivalents of a lazy plot-twist, denying the viewer a proper ending and leaving everyone feeling cheated.
5. Commentary matters.
It’s very ‘modern football’, but it’s too contrary to ignore: good commentary is important. Michael Thomas’s league-clinching goal at Anfield in 1989 is inseparable from Brian Moore’s “it’s up for grabs now”, Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick goal in 1966 has rarely been heard without Kenneth Wolstenholme’s accompaniment and, although it was hardly necessary, Bill Leslie’s “DEENEY” will always be an indelible part of that Watford against Leicester play-off semi-final in 2013.
“Collymore closing in…”
Martin Tyler warrants a tip of the hat, too. Tyler, quite wrongly, is subjected to ceaselessly accusations of bias, but has always possessed the ability to stress the sense theatre without making a particularly moment about him. Particularly impressive given that he shared a gantry with Andy Gray for so many years, the world’s heavyweight champion of spotlight stealing.
Needless to say, the holy grail is an authentic reaction. The modern temptation is for commentators to charmlessly pursue the perfect soundbyte – Druryism, if you like – and to do so at the risk of the action itself. Conversely, the reverse of that – uninhibited, inelegant, voice-quivering yelling – can be absolutely perfect under the right circumstances.
From 2.25 onwards, here’s the ABC commentary team reacting to the Brisbane Roar’s Erik Paartalu’s equaliser against the Central Coast Mariners in the 2011 A-League Grand Final.
“ERIK PAAART-AAAA-LUUUU…ERIK PAAART-AAAA-LUUUUU”
Is there a perfect answer here? No, probably not. But then, that’s part of the game’s appeal. While the strictly partisan lust after points, wins, and trophies in any shape or form, the neutrals and the temporarily dispassionate hunt rare alignments which just look or sound right. The net which billows just the right amount. The shot which is struck with flawless purity.
The last-minute goal which satisfies every conceivable sense.