Best Goal Ever?
Most people have a favourite team or, failing that, a favourite player. I’ve never been sure about those but I have always had a favourite goal, at least since 1998. Dennis Bergkamp’s last-minute winner for Holland against Argentina in that year’s World Cup quarter-final contained everything you could want: a momentous occasion, heart-stopping drama and aesthetic perfection. Bergkamp took Frank de Boer’s fifty-yard pass out of the air, controlled it with one touch, left the Argentina no. 2 for dead with his second and nonchalantly flicked it home. Then he lay on his back while the world went mad. I can still remember the sense of wonder seeing it in real time. It never grows old.
Now that goal has a rival. Hal Robson-Kanu’s second for Wales against Belgium didn’t settle the game in one fluid movement as Bergkamp’s did; the 55th minute is too early for that and there was still more to come. But it was just as momentous and just as beautiful. It came in three parts: Bale’s long pass controlled by Ramsey with a Bergkamp-like cushioned touch; Ramsey’s cross which Robson-Kanu takes and turns past three Belgians; the direct, unfussy finish. Then pandemonium. Any truly great goal needs to change the direction of play and the direction of the match in a single moment. Robson-Kanu did that and it felt like he changed his team’s destiny at the same time.
What made the Bergkamp goal perfect was that it seemed to encapsulate all that was attractive about him as a player. He was famously scared of flying – his experiences travelling to the States for the 1994 World Cup had left Bergkamp unable to get back on a plane – but no footballer has ever been so good at managing the flight of the ball. Bergkamp’s best moments came when he pulled it out of the air as though by magic. By contrast, Robson-Kanu’s goal came out of nowhere. A journeyman player out of contract and seemingly at a dead end in his career, his exquisite Cruyff turn in the Belgian penalty area was more like a tribute act. And what a lovely tribute! Cruyff, who died earlier this year, always encapsulated the unattainable mix of glamour, arrogance and technical expertise that came from the European continent. We could never hope to be so sophisticated and so adept. And here was a London-born Welshman, in the week his country gave up on Europe, doing just that.
Poor Belgium. A nation with a proud footballing history, until now they have nonetheless been defined by a single image: the celebrated photo from the 1982 World Cup of a young Maradona, the ball at his feet, confronting a line of six bamboozled Belgian defenders, peering this way and that. It’s the lone genius v. the terrified crowd. Now Robson-Kanu has added another, better version. As he turns he sends three Belgians skidding out of the picture, leaving him alone and untroubled in front of goal. It looks like Belgium’s destiny is to provide the bemused backdrop as others take control.