Upper left: Rivaldo "in pain" vs Turkey, 2002
Upper right: Maradona's "Hand of God" vs. England, 1986
Center left: Pele fakes out the goalie, vs Uruguay, 1970
Bottom: Romario of Brazil vs. Netherlands in 1994
The Ability to Surprise
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Matthew 23:27
None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 However, as it is written:
“What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”--
the things God has prepared for those who love him-- 1 Cor 2:8-9
I continue to reflect on World Cup Soccer.
Previously I wrote about how a World Cup soccer referee’s work is complicated by the tendency of the players to attempt to fool him. I would like to write a little more this week about this tendency.
One might say that the line that divides the very talented from the truly great soccer players is the ability to convince everyone that something exists when it does not. The greatest soccer players not only have incredible ball handling skills, potent ball-cannons in their feet, great peripheral vision, the ability to hit a moving target at fifty yards with a pinpoint pass, and instant geometrical intelligence to figure out the angles of plays, they are also consummate actors.
In the 2002 World Cup (as in most other World Cups) Brazil had a team with several truly great players (other countries are lucky to have only one). Among these was Rivaldo, a large forward who not only loved to perform magic with his feet, he loved mocking the other team and playing mind games with them. In the first of two games against Turkey (ultimately the third place team), Rivaldo was able to get under the skin of a Turkish defender. After a play in which Rivaldo had got this guy to concede a corner kick, the ball ended up at the defender’s feet. He kicked the ball at Rivaldo, harder than absolutely necessary for the purpose of getting him the ball for the corner kick. The replays showed that the ball hit Rivaldo in the side at only medium speed. Rivaldo, however, immediately fell on the ground screaming and put his hands to his face as though he had a broken nose. He suceeded in getting the Turkish defender thrown straight out of the game, no yellow card, do not pass “Go”, do not collect $200.00. The Turkish player was escorted to the showers, protesting his innocence all the way. Rivaldo got up with a smirk, took the corner kick, and the Brazilian squad handily defeated the Turkish squad that had to play the rest of the game a player short. A review commission met after the game and handed Rivaldo a stiff fine, and a one game suspension. As far as Brazil was concerned, both slaps on the wrist were well worth it.
There is no doubt, however, that the player with the greatest chutzpah (attitude and risk-taking) in all soccer history was a diminutive and rather stout Argentinian by the name of Diego Armando Maradona. Maradona’s skills were so brilliant (in one legendary play he left 8 Uruguayan defenders in the dust on the way to a single-handed goal) that some teams’ single defensive tactic against Argentina was to violently kick Maradona’s ankles out from under him every time the ball was headed his way. One of Maradona’s most memorable goals, however, came as a result, not of skill, but of deception. Argentina was playing a quarterfinal match on their way to capturing the 1986 world title. They were playing England, the country with which they had fought a war for the Falkland (Malvina) Islands only a very few years earlier. Even very tight security was unable to prevent a brief riot between the British “hooligans” and the Argentine loyalists in the stands. Late in the game an Argentine player looped the ball over a wall of British defenders. Maradona was able to sneak behind the wall to face the goalie alone, but at the moment that he measured the flight of the ball, he realized that it was over his head, even at the height of his jump. He did jump and jerked his head as though he were making contact with the ball, but actually flipped the ball with his right hand. He did this so skilfully that only after about the third replay did the British commentators realize what he had done. The ball floated by the goalie’s hands and into the net. The protests of the goalie availed nothing. Interviewed after the game, Maradona was asked whether he did indeed throw the ball with his hand. His response: “The goal was scored by the hand of God.” In the soccer equivalent of Roger Staubach’s 1975 4th down pass to Drew Pearson that came to be known as the “Hail Mary,” Maradona’s goal became known as the “Hand of God” goal. For many Argentinians that one play, a glaring blown call by that game’s referee, was ample compensation for the loss of the Falklands.
These two great plays involved spectacular deception. In a sense they were not soccer, they were anti-soccer. Maradona and Rivaldo bore convincing testimony to a reality that was not.
There have been brilliant plays by great players that involved not deception but surprise. There is a difference.
One of the most famous missed goal opportunities occurred in a semifinal match between Brazil and Uruguay in the 1970 World Cup. Brazil was on its way to victory in that match and in the final against Italy. A Brazilian pass found the back of the defenders, crossing into the goalie box diagonally from left to right. Péle, perhaps the greatest player of all time was racing onto the ball, moving diagonally from right to left. The goalie also raced on to the ball from the opposite direction, going full tilt and bracing for impact with Pele. Pele made like he was going to discharge a mighty shot from his right foot and as the goalie put up his hands to stop the shot, Pele let the ball go by untouched on the goalie’s left (his own right) as he raced by the goalie on the opposite side. Pele then made a sharp 90 degree turn past the goalie to return to the ball which had also passed the goalie. The goal mouth was empty. Pele then proved why soccer is such a game of suspense. The two seconds in which he recovered the ball and discharged it seemed to stretch into two minutes. Pele also proved that even the most brilliant player can turn magic into boneheadedness. His easy shot dribbled harmlessly past the opposite goal post and out of bounds, much to the goalie’s (whose face was smeared figuratively with egg) relief. Pele scored 1,000 goals in his career (an achievement comparable to hitting 1,000 home runs), but he himself has said that his great regret was not being able to have that one shot to do over again.
But while Maradona’s deception was successful, Pele’s failure was beautiful. The “hand of God” goal only seemed to be soccer and was, therefore, rightfully resented by all the British fans. Pele’s play, successful or not, lives in the imagination of every soccer fan who has ever seen it.
I have one final example from a quarterfinal match between Holland and Brazil in the 1994 World Cup in the USA. Late in the game the Brazilians suddenly stole the ball from the Dutch and sent a surprise 60 yard looping pass. The great Brazilian striker Romario was caught behind the Dutch lines in obvious offside position. He remembered the rule that if a player doesn’t figure in the play, he may not be considered offsides. As the lazily towering ball climbed the heavens and then began its descent, Romario fixed his eyes squarely on the ground right in front of his feet and walked lazily away, as though the ball didn’t even exist. The two Dutch defenders made the mistake of assuming that Romario would be called offsides and forgot the first rule of soccer: KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BALL. The said ball bounced within 60 inches of the defender’s feet, practically in Romario’s face. There was no whistle and no flag from the referee or the line judge. The surprised defenders turned to see Brazil’s other striker, Bebeto, racing from the rear, taking the ball at the end of the first bounce and plowing it into the back of the net, celebrating by making a baby-cradling motion that dedicated the goal to German Defender Lothar Mattheus’s newborn.
Rivaldo made everyone think that there had been a terrible foul when there hadn’t been, to the detriment of his opponent. Romario merely pretended that no soccer was happening when it was, and strictly abided by the rules when he kept himself out of a play in which the slightest move on the ball would be called offsides. His brilliant non-participation took everyone by surprise, but was a thing of soccer beauty.
There is a lesson here for life. It is indeed possible to get ahead by being deceptive. Satan has gotten ahead that way because his deceptions are creative, artful and convincing. His deceptions may even be entertaining at times to the uninterested, but they are never fair. We humans often wish to follow Satan to play outside the rules and see what we can get away with. The Lord consistently plays within the rules, but this does not make Him uninteresting or predictable. The Lord can be trusted always, and He can be trusted to do the unexpected. There is an element of wonder and mystery in His consistency. We Christians must not be deceptive, but we cannot play this game of life in a safe, boring, predictable and uncreative way and also call ourselves truly disciples of Jesus, the greatest and most creative practitioner of life ever.