History repeats itself, or mocks itself, or at least that’s what we like to believe. When England’s Frank Lampard did his best Geoff Hurst impression on Sunday, slicing the ball against the underside of the German crossbar and into and out of the goal, it was hard not to think the great wheel of karma had come around to Germany’s side. In 1966, Hurst’s nearly identical extra-time goal broke a 2-2 deadlock between the countries and sealed the World Cup for England. Since then, Oxford University researchers have concluded what millions of Germans believed: Hurst’s shot never crossed the line. On Sunday instant replay showed that Lampard’s ball clearly did, but this time no goal was given. The game was not tied 2-2. Germany took hold, and eliminated their English foes. Divine payback.
I immediately got a text from a friend Brian Schwartz: “For god’s sake, allow the replay.” This will of course be all the outrage, and I agree with the sentiment. We live in a world where certain truths can be slowed down and replayed and judged from our sofas. We could all see that the ball had crossed the line, and we demand television justice (Even the bookmakers agree). We obsess about such moments so much because they are decisive, but also because these certifiable truths are tiny islands in the murky sea of soccer (and life). For the most part justice isn’t so easy.
There has never been a World Cup which was won fairly. There is always an offsides call missed or a phantom penalty, a goal wrongly awarded or a team that dominated and entertained and should have won and didn’t. Someone can always claim with a bit of evidence and a load of belief, we were robbed.
So it was again for England and immediately afterward for Mexico, who went behind Argentina on a disputed goal and eventually lost, 3-1. In both games, you could say the better team won. Argentina dominated for the most part, and Germany ended up thrashing the English, 4-1. But you also might say that England would have played differently if they’d been awarded the tying goal; they might have gained some momentum, and tightened up in the back. Eventually, who knows, they might have won on penalties. Stranger things have happened.
While I was watching, I kept thinking about the differences between Mr. Lampard and Lukas Podolski, the young German marksman. Lampard is known for excelling for his club team, Chelsea, and performing poorly for England. Podolski is the opposite. He struggled at Bayern Munich, but when he puts on the German shirt, he is divine. Their differences can be measured in goals. Lampard scored 22 goals in 36 Premier League matches this year, but he couldn’t find the net in South Africa. Podolski scored two goals in 27 matches for Cologne this year and already has two in the World Cup. Overall, he has an incredible 40 goals in 77 international matches.
This repetition must mean something, but judging by Sunday’s game, either player might have been “great.” Lampard not only had a legitimate goal disallowed, he also unleashed a wicked shot that smacked off the crossbar. It was one inch from brilliance. Podolski meanwhile scored the winning goal from a tough angle, whipping the ball between the legs of the goalkeeper, David James. If James hadn’t flinched, he would have saved it. A brilliant shot, one inch from failure.
In soccer luck and intention are never far apart, and goals which shape everything about a match — the way it’s written, the way it settles in our minds — always conceal a little bit of magic. Take the USA’s loss to Ghana, a repeat of 2006 (history again). The decisive moment, the goal by Asamoah Gyan, had almost nothing to do with the rest of the match. It had nothing to do with Ghana’s better passing, or their quicker play, or the tactical match-ups. The ball was lobbed forward from the back. It was a long hit-it-and-hope pass. Gyan did the rest, masterfully collecting it, shrugging off Bocanegra, and popping it just high enough over Tim Howard.
Bob Bradley may be blamed for this loss, but was he outcoached at that very moment? No. Did Ghana deserve it? Yes.