Non-Goals: An Introduction

The legendary 1998 Nike World Cup TV Spot

I remember watching the 1998 World Cup almost exclusively for the commercials. Well really just for one specific commercial. It was a Nike commercial, and in it the Brazilian national team go running through an airport, annoying security guards, kicking balls through x-ray machines and dancing their way down moving walkways with a ball at their feet. It’s an incredibly fun ninety seconds, and it perfectly captures the joy those Brazil teams played with as they pulled one magic trick out of the bag after another, almost always making a World Cup trophy appear at the end.

It’s probably clear that I wasn’t always a soccer fan. My brothers and I sat through some of those ‘98 World Cup games, hoping the Nike spot would appear at halftime, trying to pick out the Spanish words we knew as we listened to the Spanish-language commentary on TV (the Spanish-language channel carried most of the games in our area), but we didn’t know the game and if it hadn’t been summer time we probably wouldn’t have tuned in. Fast-forward twenty five years and thousands of soccer games watched on TV and in person, and soccer is unquestionably the sport I love watching more than any other.

As a kid growing up in rural central California, I was obsessed with American sports: baseball, basketball and football. It wasn’t until the 2006 World Cup, when I shared a big apartment in Chicago with a rotating cast of French students that I really started to understand the game and develop a taste for it. As I spent time watching the tournament with my French friends I was drawn to the skill and endurance of the players, the clear stylistic differences of the national teams, and the musical sounds of the Italian squad’s names (say them out loud: “Cannavaro, Zambrotta, Ambrosini, Luca Toni, Cameronesi!”).

Years later, it’s taken me a long time to understand why I love watching soccer so much. Sure, there are some superficial elements that make the soccer viewing experience great: no commercials during the game, no timeouts to slow things down in crucial moments, most games are done in a tidy two hours. It also doesn’t hurt that I started watching soccer at a great moment in soccer history. There have never been more soccer games on TV in America, access to soccer news and analysis online feed a hungry audience, and the Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo era, in which two of the greatest players ever would square off against each other regularly on the largest stages, has been in full swing for the last 15 years and is only beginning to wind down in recent days.

But as I started watching more soccer I noticed that the game was holding my attention more than I’d expected. Even as I found myself reaching for my iPhone while I watched NBA games during the 2010s and on, I didn't have that urge while watching soccer. As I watched more and understood more about the game, I found myself watching the sport in a totally different way than I had watched any other. I loved seeing goals, and as I had chosen FC Barcelona as my favorite team there were plenty of those to see, but I realized I often loved the moments that weren't goals as much as the goals themselves. I observed that a goal was sometimes the anticlimactic end of a spectacular passage of play, and that the most impressive part of the goal might have happened many seconds before the ball crossed the goal line. The most amazing part of a game might have been the way a defender craftily stole the ball and began a counter attack. Or the way a midfielder managed to find a gap in the defense that nobody else saw and passed through it. Or how a striker might make a run through the opponent's defense to make space for their teammates, and how, without ever touching the ball, that striker and their movement created the opportunity for a shot or a goal.

At some point it dawned on me. While goals are often terrific and sublime, they're just as often just ok. Or, sometimes, they're kinda meh, or even worse: kind of ugh. It's also possible to watch an entire game without seeing a goal. But what you can almost always count on are passages of play that blow your mind, or individual moments of brilliance that seem impossible at first glance but really happened, or tactical adjustments that unlock their opposing team--the list goes on.

After a while I started calling these moments "non-goals." Borrowing a word from the tech world that usually means something you meaningfully set out not to accomplish, I wanted to draw attention to this counterintuitive approach to watching sports. I hope that readers come away from this blog with the idea that soccer is a lot deeper than the score or the final result, and that they're able to find enjoyment in looking for the non-goals of the game–the moments between the goals that hold your attention for hours, or in my case, years. If you can re-wire your brain to love non-goals: the brilliant, skillful, inspiring events that can happen at any moment in a soccer game, you'll find a new appreciation for a sport with an almost infinite supply of great moments in every game, season or tournament.

As the Brazilian team weaved their way through the crowded international airport in that Nike spot, disrupting boarding groups and impressing awe-stuck children, their star striker, Ronaldo, spots two portable line stanchions a few feet apart in the distance–the perfect makeshift goal to strike the ball though at the end of his team’s flowing display. He takes aim, strikes his foot through the ball, and watches as his shot sails on target until it hits one of the stanchions and bounces back toward him. He grimaces, the once captivated kids cover their eyes in disappointment, the Nike logo appears and the spot is over. The goal is not always the thing.