In life you have to have goals. And vice versa. So Diego
Maradona kissed an Argentine teammate full on the mouth after
one memorable goal. After another, Lee Sharpe of Manchester
United uprooted a corner flag, held it like a microphone and
impersonated Elvis Presley. Then there was Finidi George of
Nigeria. After scoring in the 1994 World Cup, George crawled to
a corner, raised a hind leg and pretended to use the corner flag
as a dog does a fire hydrant. Several teammates then deliriously
did the same. And why not? Soccer's international governing body
has a rule against "excessive celebration." It says nothing of
Indeed, one measure of how precious goals are in soccer is that
none of the aforementioned acts was deemed excessively
celebratory. On the contrary: Goals are so diabolically
difficult to come by, so delirium-inducing when they occur, that
the only reasonable response to one is pandemonium. "You forget
that people are watching you," says Eric Wynalda, the alltime
leading scorer for the U.S. national team. "You're just so
happy, you don't care. It's like winning the lottery."
He hardly exaggerates. In the last World Cup only 2.71 goals
were scored per game, an increase of half a goal per game over
the '90 Cup average. The five-week tournament that began this
week promises to be similarly stingy. So when the improbable
does happen, when a magical goal is conjured from the ether, can
a player be faulted for doing backflips?
He can if that player is Celestine Babayaro, a defenseman for
the London club Chelsea who twice injured himself last season
while performing Ozzie Smith-style goal celebrations. Management
has barred Babayaro from flipping out again, which is a pity
because the celebrations that follow goals are the wittiest,
giddiest, most laughable, ludicrous, life-affirming acts in all
of sport. The great Argentine striker Gabriel Batistuta once
said, Goals are like bread. I need them to live.
June 14, 1998
This would explain why players react to all goals, great and
small, with the kind of hysteria common to people whose names
have just been called on The Price Is Right. Brazilian forward
Juary would samba around the corner flag after scoring. A
striker in the Argentine league likes to hold up an imaginary
Instamatic and take a snapshot of the dejected keeper in his
moment of misery. Following their final goal in a 3-1 defeat of
West Germany in the '82 World Cup final, several players for
Italy performed what one reporter referred to as a group sex
act, which is better left undescribed. Suffice to say that it
was a very icky shuffle, a memorable celebration.
Many more are in store throughout France over the next five
weeks. Babayaro, the flipper, and George, who has feigned
incontinence on three continents, will suit up for Nigeria in
the World Cup, and one cannot begin to fathom what bombastic,
gymnastic goal commemorations this demented duo might concoct.
For now, we can only give thanks that such men exist. They are
the products of countries infinitely more festive than the U.S.
is. Soccer is the sport of cultures that require two exclamation
points, so that the word !GOL! actually looks like a goal, with
a round object centered between two posts. Indeed, three
exclamation points--!!!--resemble sequential photographs of a
man performing a full, flying, forward somersault. That's what
Antonio Mohammed of Argentina often does after he scores in the
There are few moments in American football when a man is moved
to tear off his clothes. But for years players in the Spanish
and the Italian football leagues have celebrated goals by
removing their shirts and waving them around like flags. "I saw
a Newcastle player go crazy once," says U.S. keeper Kasey
Keller, who also plays for Leicester City in England. "He just
went nuts. Started taking off his clothes and--I don't really
understand it--kicking stuff and kicking people. It was odd. He
took his shirt off, his shoes off. I don't know what he was
doing. Going berserk."
Giuseppe Meazza of Italy memorably combined these feats--scoring
and stripping--in the '38 World Cup, when he kicked what proved
to be the winning penalty shot against Brazil while his pants
were falling off. How appropriate, for no other sport is as
nakedly emotional as soccer. Consider this story, then, a
celebration of celebrations. Gentlemen, our hats are off to you.
To say nothing of our pants.
Any list of the great goal scorers in the world must begin with
Oliver Bierhoff of Germany, Predrag Mijatovic of Yugoslavia,
Ronaldo and Romario of Brazil, and Alan Shearer of England.
Outwardly, the men have little in common. Romario, who has a
torn hamstring and cannot compete in the World Cup, is a
self-described alley cat who was "born to disco dance," while
the chairman of the English club Newcastle has called Shearer,
his star striker, "boring." Yet what Shearer shares with Romario
is an utter inability to hide his apres-goal glee. After
scoring, the emotions of both men spring out like coiled snakes
from a novelty canister. The absence of goals has a similar
effect. Shearer had two violent outbursts in Newcastle losses
this spring but generally goals cause him to beam and sprint
away from teammates. "It's the moment and something takes over,"
explains U.S. defender Alexi Lalas. "You feel so good, you've
got to run."
Such impulsive flights can be bad for a player. After scoring
against Greece in the '94 World Cup, Maradona ran to the nearest
TV camera, stuck his face in the lens and screamed maniacally,
his eyeballs bulging and bloodshot. An illegal substance was
found in his bloodstream four days later, and he was suspended
for 15 months.
But he was hardly the first, or last, player to be driven
clinically bananas by a goal. Lalas scored in his nation's
historic win over England in '93, a game so devastating to the
inanimate losers that the London Sun summarized it as: YANKS 2,
PLANKS 0. Says Lalas of scoring at such a moment, "You go crazy
and don't remember anything. It's an incredible euphoria and you
totally blank out."
That was certainly the case when Wynalda scored the tying goal
against Switzerland in the '94 Cup. After his bending, 28-yard
free kick found the upper left corner in the last minute before
the half, the sold-out Pontiac Silverdome threatened to burst
like a Jiffy Pop popcorn pan. Wynalda remained oblivious. "You
have to go into a complete trance," he says of the concentration
required to score, and that trance lasts well into the goal
So the first thing he recalls after scoring is that teammate
Ernie Stewart kissed him. "Ernie never kissed me before," says
Wynalda, "so that was kind of weird."
The striker then ran reflexively toward the Silverdome seats,
looking very much like Reddy Kilowatt, the '50s
energy-conservation character who had lightning bolts for a body
and a lightbulb for a head. "I remember feeling like electricity
was coming out of me," says Wynalda, who somehow saw only one
face in a sellout crowd of 73,425: a little girl's. "She was
just there, and I winked at her," he says. "I was trying to act
cool, as though this was no big deal."
But it was, and when the halftime whistle sounded seconds later,
Wynalda spotted his wife pounding on the glass in a luxury
suite. "I remember thinking she better watch it, she's going to
break through the glass," he says. Then, suddenly, the striker
was in the locker room, where he realized that teammate Joe-Max
Moore was clinging to his back like a baby koala bear. Wynalda
had, without realizing it, given Moore a piggyback ride all the
way in from the field.
Four years later Wynalda regrets his relatively sober--which is
to say fully clothed and urine-free--celebration. But he refuses
to plot these things. "There are guys that can rival Broadway
shows in terms of choreography," says Lalas, who looks with
disdain on these players. "For me it's all spontaneous. Those
are the best goals, when you can see the incredible passion and
joy and elation.
"It's sexual," he says of scoring, which is itself a crude
synonym for having sex. "An explosion. A climax."
Whichever metaphor you prefer, one thing is clear: Soccer goals
are essential to the very sustenance of life on this planet. You
might say, then, that the best goal celebrations are
celebrations of life. After Bebeto scored for Brazil against
Holland in the '94 World Cup, he sprinted to the sideline and
began to rock an invisible baby in his arms, commemorating the
birth of his son days earlier.
When Batistuta snapped a long scoreless streak for his Italian
club Fiorentina, he ran to a TV camera and screamed at the top
of his lungs, "I love you, Claudia!" Who's Claudia? Who cares?
You're missing the point. The top club in the world this year
was the Italian champion Juventus (whose name derives from the
Latin iuvenis, or "youth"), and that is only appropriate, for
the most memorable moments in international soccer are
rejuvenating. They return us to youth.
"Leave a kid to play football, and he will naturally want to
attack, to score goals," says Ferenc Puskas, the Hungarian great
who once scored 83 times in 84 games for his nation. "In my day
we relied on natural talent, creativity and wit, but [these
days] that gets coached out of many players."
It is a difficult journey, returning these players to youthful
instinct. But the destination is worth the trip. When West
Germany defeated Holland in the '90 World Cup, the first goal in
a 2-1 victory was scored by Jurgen Klinsmann, on a cross by
Guido Buchwald. Eight years later Wynalda can still see the
moment on the video reel of his mind: "Buchwald gets the ball in
the left wing, and he's never dribbled anybody in his life. But
he dribbles the ball in the left wing and crosses it. You see
Klinsmann, with his left foot, just put it in the far corner
The goal was a thing of rare beauty, requiring a confluence of
extraordinary events. But rarer still was the look on
Klinsmann's face after scoring it. "He could be eight years
old," Wynalda says of Klinsmann's expression. "It's pure joy.
It's like, Oh, my god, it worked."
"You forget that people are watching you," says Wynalda. "You're
just so happy, you don't care."
One thing is clear: Soccer goals are essential to the very
sustenance of life on this planet.