Troubling the Canon – Papiss Cissé and the Sanctity of Great Goals

Papiss Cissé scored quite a good goal a few weeks ago. You may have heard about it at the time, or as a result of the steady proliferation of end of season reviews that have considered it to be among the best goals scored in the Premiership this season. 

But where does it stand in comparison to some of the very best goals ever scored? To ask a question so soon after the goal was scored may smack of knee-jerkery berkery, but it does prompt discussion on what makes a goal worthy of placement in the pantheon that homes the all-time best.

The Guardian’s Jacob Steinberg once opined that there should be no definitive discussion of the ‘best goal ever’, rather that any such debate should incorporate different categories of goal – for example, best team goal, best header, best volley and so forth. The thinking behind it was to form some semblance of structure to the debate, whilst expanding the parameters to allow for logic. His theory was that, when comparing, say, Carlos Alberto to Zinedine Zidane, the finishing touch applied by the Brazilian cannot touch the Frenchman’s for technique and grace, for sheer mastery of the ball. However, one goal came from a fortuitous hooked cross that had little right to be an assist, while the other was the climax of a beautiful, state-of-the-art passing move that crystallised the very essence of an era-defining side. Which goal is better? Well, that all depends…

And so the debate will continue until such time as Millwall have won the Champions League with a team of expensively assembled space-age droids. What is the best goal, and why? And how? AND WHERE?! We will and can never know. But the reason that Cissé’s goal struck a particular chord with me is that it instantly evoked memories of two other goals that can be taken as its spiritual kin, forming a trinity of strikes that collectively provoke debate concerning the best goals ever scored.

Marco Van Basten and Roberto Carlos are not names that many football fans would naturally associate with each other, much less Cissé, but they all have something in common. To my mind, they have each scored the type of goal that occupy their own annex in the library of great goals. All three stand alone, as if they were communicated to us in a different language.

All three, to borrow the ‘Steinberg System’, would be ranked highly in the technique section of the all-time greats. I have rewatched many goals that have impressed me for any number of reasons, but these three goals in particular bear repeat viewings in the same way that you might rewind footage of a magic trick. ‘How did that happen?’ I wondered each time, after Van Basten, Carlos and Cissé achieved the implausible with the swing of a leg.

These three goals make for compelling stablemates, and not just for their aesthetic qualities. They all share the same element of raw wonder, the sense that no-one else could have ever tried such a thing. They also raise questions of the canon of great goals, and what it takes to get there…

“I just hit it and it’s went in!”

Van Basten’s is frequently cited as the greatest goal of all time, largely due to the dramatic gravitas of being scored in the final of a major tournament. So few great goals are scored in finals, perhaps due to a fear of failure. Trying the spectacular and failing badly is a worse prospect when done in front of a global TV audience of billions.

The fact that Van Basten would attempt something so audacious in the first place earns significant kudos, but it is legitimised by being a decisive factor in shaping history. The history books will state plainly that Holland beat the USSR thanks to a goal from Van Basten (as well as another from the spiritual father of this parish), which immediately propels it high in the upper echelons. This goal was the masterpiece of a career that amassed 218 goals in 208 club games, and stands as a monument in tribute of a fine career.

“I just hit it and it’s went in!”

The Carlos free-kick is perhaps overlooked due to being scored in Le Tournoi, an inconsequential post-season international contest won by England (which surely only denounces the tournament’s quality further). Another thing that may count against it is the fact that Carlos took so many free-kicks throughout his career but scored very few, with the beef-legged Brazilian adopting the maxim that, should you bend enough shit around a wall, eventually, something will stick.

As such, this goal was responsible for creating the falsehood that he was a dead-ball specialist, adding weight to the status of the goal. Not only was it something wonderful to look at, it constructed a comic-book style story of origin, breathing to life the mythos that would maintain the legend long after he had faded from view. The idea of the man with ball-bending thighs of oak was practically born as a result of this goal. So, whilst being pleasing to the eye, it also comes with its own spin-off story of sorts. Not bad for a toe-punt.

“I just hit it and it’s went in!”

Cissé’s goal is still waiting in the canon’s in-tray, to be filed in some as yet indeterminate place. The technique has rightly been praised, but as with the Van Basten and Carlos strikes, it is the sheer audacity that is most admirable. Which sane man would ever have considered even trying such a thing, from that angle, and that distance, against Petr Cech? By any definition, it was something bordering on genius.

The man now has a fight on his hands to preserve the integrity of the goal, by ensuring that his subsequent career manages to stay within distance of a bar that has now been irrevocably raised. The goal will be considered in higher esteem if he should go on to have a fantastic career, in the same way that David Beckham’s future achievements were presaged by one particular strike. Should Cissé’s run of form fizzle out, so too might memories of his goal. If he should help Newcastle to win major honours, or if he should join a bigger club, this goal might be considered his audition tape, early footage of a nascent career later spent breathing the rarefied air of the game’s elite.

The myth is that scoring a truly wonderful goal should ensure your place in history, but it’s not strictly true. He now has a legacy to protect, and needs to galvanise it with the fundament of future success. There is a determination to ensure that the great goals are scored by the great players. The history books must be unblemished by the chance triumphs of the mediocre. Nobody remembers very much of Mauro Bressan, a man who did this. See also: Trevor Sinclair, Roy Wegerle and Shaun Bartlett.

What will come of Cissé’s wondergoal? Will it one day be thought of as one of his promising, earlier works, signposting a career destined for greatness? Or will it be dismissed as some dazzling, left-of-field curio, filed alongside the heady summer of Tony Yeboah? Perhaps it will simply be revealed that Cissé is the result of some futuristic experiment in cryogenics, with the harvested DNA of Pele, Maradona and Cruyff melded together to create the ultimate footballer, which will no doubt end in some cataclysmic hormonal imbalance that will inevitably end in a tragic training ground killing spree. In the meantime, let’s just enjoy these moments while we still can, and let history decide their futures.


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