IN A world where ‘great’ goals are scored week in week out by every Tom, Dick and Crouchy, it’s time to reclaim the term.
A great goal – a truly, truly great goal – must always be a sum of parts, a collection of moments. It needs setup and delivery, patterns unfolding before the viewer’s eyes as Muhren spots Van Basten at the back post or Maradona eases beyond Peter Reid and begins an assault on the very notion of impossibility.
When Papiss Cisse swirled the ball airily in to the top corner of Petr Cech’s goal towards the end of last season it was mentioned in the same breath as Premier League greatest hits from the likes of Le Tissier, Di Canio and Woan (yeah, Woan. What of it?)
It was a good goal. A fun goal, a ridiculous goal, a riotously enjoyable goal. That’s not in question. But, to this observer, not great. Not even close.
The truly great goals have stories to them; beginnings, middles and ends. Sometimes they keep you guessing till the last moment (ah, there’s Carlos Alberto). Sometimes they have a touch of comedy about them, the ridiculous rendering the sublime all the more memorable.
Now and again you’ll get a great celebration to add something to the occasion, or some controversy which, like a flaw in a diamond, draws attention to the brilliance surrounding it. Very occasionally there might also be a political element, some wider context which gives a moment of otherwise pure footballing pleasure a meaning which resonates beyond the normal cultural parameters of the game.
These rare goals leave you with a sense of having learned a little more about football – perhaps a little more about life.
For a goal that has it all, not many can touch Davor Šuker’s second against Denmark at Euro 96.
The finish outrageous, the build-up by turns inspired and comical, the nature of the goal is of a piece with its significance.
At 2-0 down, reigning champions Denmark are facing almost certain elimination at an embarrassingly early stage. Peter Schmeichel has joined the attack but the game is in its death throes, the unlikely heroes of 1992 spent.
The ageing Kim Vilfort, in his final international tournament, is flagged offside as the Danes shuffle mindlessly forward in search of unlikely salvation. Croatia are immediately alive to the situation. Schmeichel, clearly, is not.
At this stage the camerawork, whether by accident or design, plays a significant part. The lens captures perfectly Schmeichel’s transition from casual jog back to full-on panic mode as the danger behind him becomes manifest, cutting back to the wide angle in time to lay bare the possibilities.
As the immense goalkeeper streaks across the field, Aljosa Asanovic fires a beautifully-weighted crossfield pass to Šuker.
The striker is clearly offside, although the sight of Schmeichel breaking through his own defensive line may have sown confusion in the mind of the French linesman.
What power, on such occasions, these quite literally peripheral figures possess. A twitch of the flag and the match finishes 2-0. Nothing beyond this point will matter.
But the flag does not twitch, and the Hillsborough crowd senses a final flourish is in the offing as Šuker’s flawless control with his less favoured right foot sketches out a path to goal.
A dizzied Schmeichel seems to struggle to readjust to the business of goalkeeping, his defenders chasing back with an air of apology. Šuker glides into the box in 13 steps, prompting the ball once more, his head, eyes and brain seeking alternatives to the idea his left foot is forming. The finish.
That left foot with which Šuker would score all but eight of his 45 international goals enters the piece only now. Contemporary match reports are divided on quite how to describe what happens next.
Some say chip. Some, less accurately, say lob. In truth it’s more of an elite-level scoop, a balletic version of the kind of thing you might try – and get wrong – when one-on-one with the smallest kid in class.
This, though, is Schmeichel, by common consent the world’s finest goalkeeper, an English double-winner just 36 days before. It simply should not happen.
The goalkeeper’s reaction completes the picture. A leap to the full extent of his frame having proven woefully inadequate, Schmeichel lands on his feet yet falls to the ground as if floored by a knockout punch. Denmark are dead on their feet.
As one of the defining moments of the tournament, Šuker’s goal was momentous enough. But for Croatia it was sweeter still for coming against Denmark, the nation allowed in to Euro 92 through the back door due to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
For the Croats to have been through such footballing turmoil (which itself was as nothing compared to the human cost of the war), and return within four years to dethrone the Scandinavians, was as symbolic as it was uplifting.
To finish off the usurpers in such stylish and impudent fashion, leaving their totemic goalkeeper slumped on the turf – this was fantasy made reality, the mark of all great footballing moments.
Indeed, in purely footballing terms too it was a goal of import. Though Croatia would not last beyond the quarter-finals in 1996, they would go on to finish third in France 98. Their vengeful defenestration of Germany in that tournament ranks among the most complete performances at a major tournament in recent memory.
It also marked the point at which Šuker became generally accepted as one of the deadliest strikers in world football. The left-footedness, the arrogance-free swagger, the air of a man with a smoker’s cough and a karaoke rendition of Thunder Road in him, all added up to something intoxicating.
He was, for a time, just too bloody good.
Speaking to The Guardian in 2001 during his largely fruitless late-period spell in England, Šuker discussed his plans (later realised) to found a football academy in Croatia.
Most of all, he said:
“I want to teach them how to score goals. I would like to talk to the youngsters to explain what qualities you need – how you need to control the ball, how you need to feel when you are one on one with the goalkeeper. The best word is cold.”
For the first few classes he could simply show them this.
Follow Steve on Twitter @steve_graves
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