There are many ways to win a game of association football. And we are about to arbitrarily rank them because why the heck not?
The processional win
You think you want an easy win, but you don’t really. You want to read about one in the paper, or see its effect on the league table, but – inside the ground, with minutes left to play – deep down, we all know that football is better when the result is in the balance.
Because football needs tension. After the fact, sure, everyone likes goals and hearing the Match of the Day pundits say nice things, but in the stadium, anyone who says that they want to watch the final half an hour of a 4-0 cruise is either lying to themselves or just wrong.
Because stadiums change. Players and teams do, too. After delivering a savage combination to knock out an opponent, matches descend towards half-hearted truce. The pace drops, the energy vents away. It’s like Christmas Day after everyone’s eaten.
Most importantly, everything stops mattering as much, with the experience becoming broad and generalised and without anything possessing the same potency. The excitement doesn’t build when a corner is forced. Neat switches of play aren’t given their customary applause. The little sensory habits aren’t there and the game’s poorer for it.
Taking pride in goal difference and points tallies is for the journey home, because without the urgent cut and thrust of actual competition, there is no sharpness, there is no anxiety, there is no real occasion.
It’s not about entertainment. It’s the feeling that everything that’s happening on the pitch has an actual consequence and that every pass, touch or turn is worth everybody’s absolute attention.
With a mistake
It’s such a tricky area, because it really depends on the grade of calamity. Also, on how susceptible to excruciating human misfortune you are.
Somewhere between those variables exists a thin line of consensus, though – a point at which it’s still possible to relish in the schadenfreude without feeling like – or actually being – a sociopath.
For instance, was Real Madrid’s Champions League win in 2018 better or worse for what happened to Lorius Karius?
Worse, clearly – it wasn’t just that Karius had made a mistake at the highest, most visible point of the sport, but that he had committed errors which would change the course of his career and life. No matter what else he does in the game, he was from that point onwards condemned to being ‘that goalkeeper’.
Massimo Taibi, Peter Enckelman, Peter Bonetti, Rob Green; he’s with them now, in football’s Overlook Hotel. Petr Kouba is there, too, for his soft wrists in the Euro ’96 final. And nobody deserves that.
As a general rule, if a mistake makes you recoil from the pitch or squirm back into the sofa, then it’s pretty difficult to wring it for any real mirth. The same applies for any situation in which there’s no chance for redemption; the permanent sullying of a reputation is no laughing matter.
But there is a sweet spot. It depends on the scenario, the time in a game, the person involved and – very obviously – the scale of their mistake, but portion those ratios right and there is a perfect mix of misfortune and high comedy to be found.
Because of bad refereeing
In this terrible age of VAR, this now has a different meaning. Most likely, the watchful (bastard, game-killing, sport-ruining) eye of Stockley Park has consigned this to the past. If a referee makes a terrible blunder or a linesman misses an obvious offside, there’s now some killjoy/hero ready to immediately right that wrong.
But, in any case, it always depended on who the mistake benefited. If an underdog profited from an unseen handball or a soft penalty, that contributed to the illicit thrill of receiving something for nothing. If a heavy favourite was helped along their way to what was already a predetermined victory, the dynamic is very different – it leads the conversation to much darker places, like bias and conspiracy.
What if, for instance, Robbie Keane had handballed the Republic of Ireland to the World Cup? What if Sepp Blatter had been chortling away at the French insistence that they should be given a place in South Africa gratis, in recompense for the egregious cheating?
It shows how important it is. Thierry Henry cheated and we were encouraged to hate him for it. But had it happened down the other end, we’d be trading winks and smiles with an Irish forward, ruffling his hair and seeing his ingenuity as some kind of karmic rebate.
Given the obvious differences, the supporter reaction has to be different, too. On that night, would it really have been realistic for the French to be taunting and bragging their way out of Stade de France and back to Gare de Nord? How did it feel for them to have profited off something so obviously wrong, as opposed to how it might have done for the Irish, perennial underdog that they are, to have made off with the gold from one of the game’s most secure vaults? It would have been like Ocean’s 11, but with Dougal from Father Ted.
With a share of two goals in stoppage time
In theory, this should really be at the top of the list. The horror of a late equaliser – the punch to the stomach, the blood turning cold – quickly cured by your team going straight down the other end and snatching the points? It sounds great. It’s also incredibly rare, which gives it a kind of elusive appeal, but maybe it’s actually too much?
Perhaps the swing between states is so great that the result is just a rather pathetic exhaustion. That it’s so bad and so good that, in effect, the fan is left in a strange sort of emotional purgatory. Making the right arms and faces, but feeling almost completely vacant inside.
Obviously, there are exceptions. Two stoppage-time goals from the same side is an entirely different proposition – the heart isn’t being torn one way and then the other – but, emotionally at least, doing it this way around is an illusory Camelot.
The undeserved win
Football is unique in that the team that plays better doesn’t necessarily always win and that’s actually very unusual in sport. Generally speaking, if you’ve run the furthest, jumped the highest and performed with the best technique, you’ll end up on the right side of the equation; at least you would in cricket, athletics, both codes of rugby and all of the American sports.
Conversely, football is a lot better at throwing up the odd anomaly which, now with the use of Expected Goals, has become much easier to prove.
This is an especially valuable sub-section now, with the game’s disparities being what they are. It’s not uncommon for possession to be split 70-30 anymore, nor for final shot tallies to be multiples of one another. The implication being that, although football has grown far more predictable as a result, the propensity for absurd and amusing results has grown.
And how wonderful it is the on right side of one of those, particularly given the entitlement which generally follows? From fans, but also from head coaches and players.
It’s so familiar that it’s actually becoming a trope: a squad of decadently-rewarded superstars fails to break down a deep-lying opponent, an extra £150m of substitutes won’t do it either and, having walked between the raindrops, the more modest team prevails. Then, some high priest of the game moans and bitches his way through a press conference, lecturing furiously about the moral rights of the sport and how, actually, his team losing isn’t funny or humbling at all, but actually an affront to football which needs to be quickly and universally condemned.
The narrow, ground-out victory
Underrated. Really, really underrated.
Watching your team hold onto a lead is exhausting. It’s grimly fascinating, too, because it changes the way you watch the game. Ordinarily, style and shape matter and you, as someone who has paid to be in the ground, hold the players to the highest standard.
Okay, maybe not the highest, but there’s an expectation of craft and imagination which, with a one-goal lead and time draining away, suddenly ceases to matter. There’s a point within that scenario when the sport actually changes, at which it reverts to being incredibly primitive. At that point, it’s not about passes and first touches, tactics or shots, but just properly, whole-hearted, thumping contact with the ball. It’s meaty headers and flush hacks up the field, getting the ball as far away from the goal as possible.
It’s interesting because it changes how the crowd responds. Under normal circumstances, an aimless boot up the pitch brings the groans tumbling out of the tiers, but when there’s something to protect, particularly in a derby, or in any game with obvious consequences, the game becomes far more attritional.
In effect, it devolves into a series of weird little skirmishes, during which the greater battle is won by pinning an opponent down by their own corner flag, or when a clumsy, largely bad centre-forward falls over and milks a free-kick from the referee.
It’s football by survival. Getting to the final whistle is like that feeling of watching to the end of The Exorcist or The Omen for the first time. Or when Brody blows up the shark at the end of Jaws.
The late winner
Well, obviously – so much so that it doesn’t need justification.
Here’s an interesting thought, though. At a particular point in a game, fans accept the result. On 80 minutes they’re still caught in the here and now, howling their encouragement and their irritation. But somewhere between the 85th and 90th, that disappointing 0-0 or 1-1 becomes a factual outcome. That is how the game will end; everyone has to live with it.
And their minds wander: what do those dropped points mean? Which rivals will capitalise? And what excuses can be used to explain away this latest stumble?
And then they become angry.
And then they start to reconfigure their weekend.
“Shall I go out tonight? No, I’m staying in and sulking.”
Yes it’s the limbs and the release and the joy and everything else, but it’s also the scattering of assumptions and then this quick march of realisations which come one after the other. A bet has been won. Points have been stolen. Disappointed rivals are sat at home, having already counted those chickens before they had hatched.
It’s not just a winning goal, it’s a new reality.
The stoppage-time turnaround
There’s your Camelot.
On the one hand, it says something that we all know and which was described in the section above. It’s the same inversion of reality, just taken a step further: 180 degrees, rather than just 90.
On the other, it underlines a brutal truth about not just the game, but also fandom. It’s a cruel sport and, while some are more familiar than others, everybody knows what football feels like at its nastiest. To go from losing to winning in the blink of a few stoppage-time minutes, then, is to escape the jaws, but then see them close on someone else.
It’s difficult to know for sure, but it seems that football is more and more about inflicting misery, or at least about condemning others to the sulking, self-piteous nonsense that comes with losing. The icon emeritus for that is Sammy Kuffour, who was posterised by that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer goal in 1999, but – trite as it may be to say it – he’s a very worthy emblem. That was misery. That’s what it looks like to be mocked by a sport.
And – what this says about people, who knows – but that’s really what every fan who ever pushed through a turnstile is trying to run from.
Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter