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Into Space

Passes into open space are non-goals of the highest order. If you’re lucky you’ll spot a few good ones in 90 minutes--passes that open up the game, landing exactly where the receiving players need to be, like a perfectly-executed Apollo mission.

In 1962 President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech to 40,000 people at the most sacred of all American institutions: a football stadium in Texas. In this speech he expounded on his vision of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” that would take place before the end of the decade.

But why choose the moon, he asked? Well, “why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?” [Kudos to JFK for maybe the world’s greatest example of playing to the crowd.]

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” he continued, noting that this endeavor “will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” he continued, noting that this endeavor “will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

Many say landing on the moon was man’s greatest achievement. While that’s likely to be true, we submit the pass into space (or the “through ball” for the less astronomically inclined) as the soccer equivalent of a lunar landing. Passes into space are among the best non-goals for the same reasons the Apollo missions are so inspiring. They require vision, attention to detail and a desire to break through lines and boundaries to connect with unexplored aspects of existence. They require the best of both skills and energies. They’re also the type of non-goal that is most like the holiest of American sports holies: the touchdown pass.

Pogba's pass into space

Let’s take a look at one excellent example of the pass into space: a stratosphere-piercing through ball from France’s mercurial Paul Pogba during 2021’s 2020 Euro Cup (the tournament was delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic but maybe all of the signs had already been printed). Pogba is probably too tall and inconsistently excellent to be an astronaut, but when the stars align, his timing, precision, and technical expertise are on par with the best of mission control. In this non-goal, Pogba’s launching a counter attack. As the ball bounces his way near the center of the field, he hopes to quickly advance his team with a defense-stretching pass down the flank to his teammate, Marcus Thuram. In an instant, he determines the trajectory of the ricocheting ball, takes two quick steps backward and adjusts his body position to match the path of the ball, then steps into the pass making sure to keep his foot over the top of the ball so that it doesn’t end up on Jupiter. With this effort, he can send the ball into the path of his speedier teammates–quickly breaking into the attacking zone of the field before the opposing defense has a chance to prepare. It’s exactly what Kennedy had hoped to do to his Soviet rivals–get out ahead of the game as quickly and definitively as possible. Pogba’s perfectly placed pass out wide gives France an edge and puts them in a good position, even though the attack eventually fizzles out.

As you might know, the Apollo spacecraft had three parts: the command module that housed the pilots, the service module which propelled the craft, and the lunar module which was built to land softly on the surface of the moon. Pogba’s pass essentially has the same elements:

  • His brain is the command module, navigating space and making decisions on where to position his body to send his pass into space.

  • His right foot is the service module, propelling the ball at the right speed, loft and backspin to land directly in the path of Thuram at the perfect moment.

  • And the ball is the lunar module, hurtling toward the surface and setting down at Tranquility Base: the feet of his teammate. Neil Armstrong couldn’t have done it better.

  • As a bonus, we’ve even got a Buzz Aldrin on this mission: French striker Olivier Giroud, who arrives on the scene about 15 minutes later and misses out on the glory.

America’s space program advanced humanity’s understanding of our world and worlds beyond, along the way laying the groundwork for technologies that would change our lives forever. Earthlings were able to follow this progress in entirely new ways, with updates on the global space race available to a worldwide audience, culminating in the live television broadcast of humans walking on the moon. A non-goal pass like Pogba’s is a much smaller feat, but still significant. Viewed by millions of people all over the world, igniting the imaginations of soccer fans and inspiring players to dream about what’s possible on the field, each non-goal mission drives the soccer world forward, inching toward ever bigger moments on the world stage.

Legendary passtronaut Iniesta

While we’re on the topic of space, we should discuss one of the greatest passtronauts (had to do it) of all time, Andres Iniesta. Never have so many passes been sent into space with the majesty and precision of those launched from the Iniesta launchpad. A non-goal factory for FC Barcelona between 2004-2018, Iniesta actually scored two of the most famous goals of the last twenty years: a perfectly struck and guided missile vs Chelsea FC in a controversial Champions League semi-final in 2009, and the game-winning strike in the 2010 World Cup final that brought Spain their first trophy as the world’s best national team.

But while those two goals will live at the top of Iniesta’s resumé forever, his greatest contributions to the game regularly came in the form of non-goals.

Iniesta was a small, physically unimposing player, but he was a master of keeping the ball at his feet under pressure. His inventiveness with the ball was bettered only by his vision as a passer. Iniesta’s Barcelona were known for their possession of the ball–it wasn’t unusual for Barcelona to have the ball 75-80% of the game–but Iniesta consistently created incisions through the opponent’s defensive lines and onto the feet of his strikers, ensuring that after long passages of meandering possession Barcelona would find a way to score in the end. Vision, composure, skills of the highest order–Iniesta was the archetypal non-goal creator. A typical Iniesta passage of play might feature several non-goals strung together–deploying a magical first-touch to corral the ball, nimbly maneuvering around a defender or three with his patented “croqueta” technique, playing a quick one-two with another midfielder to inconvenience the defense, and finally playing a ball into space for an open striker to run onto. Iniesta could package an entire Apollo mission into a seven-second passage of play, several times a game, every game of the year.

American Jerry Ross went into space seven times (a record) and Iniesta was equally important to his club and his country, winning an absurd number of trophies, exploring new galaxies on the field and gaining praise from then-Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola for his “mastery of the relationship between space and time.” While he may never have visited the moon, it was in doing the other things that made Iniesta a human space program.


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