Off the ball

Genius, madman or both?

Liverpool's 'Mad-Cap' Zimbabwean goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar
© Getty Images

Winning a FIFA World Cup™, or at least taking part in one, is the best way for a footballer to make his mark in the game. But all it takes is a second go down in history, a moment of genius or madness where reason gives way to instinct. Even if players spend most of their time preparing themselves physically and mentally, it is those little touches of the unexpected which make football magic and moves unforgettable.

Brazilian legend Pele, for example, was nearly as famous for the goals that he could have scored as for those which he actually did score. The latter category includes his magnificent volley in the Final of Sweden 1958, when he chipped the ball up over the defender’s head to make room for his shot.

"The ball came to me, I controlled it with my chest and the defender thought I was going to shoot," recalls 'O Rei'. "I stuck my foot out and flicked it over his head. It’s something that European defenders weren’t used to. They tended to throw themselves at their opponent because everyone used to hit it first time. Without waiting for the ball to bounce on the ground, I shot and scored."

Twelve years later, during Brazil’s opening match against Czechoslovakia at Mexico 1970, the Canarinha ace outrageously attempted to lob goalkeeper Ivo Viktor from inside his own half, only to see the ball land inches wide of the right-hand post. Another audacious effort which deserved better was his dummy in the semi-final, which took Uruguayan keeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz and the whole world by surprise.

Running onto a through pass, the Brazilian No10 let the ball run one way while he ran the other, before lashing in a shot on the turn which went agonisingly wide. Beaten in the Final by such prodigious talent, Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich later confirmed what the whole world was thinking: "Before the match, I told myself that Pele was just flesh and bones like the rest of us. Later I realised I was wrong."

Predicting the unpredictableBurgnich is not the only player to have experienced this feeling of helplessness. After all, how do you predict the unpredictable? How could German custodian Sepp Maier, during the penalty shoot-out in the final of the UEFA European Championship 1976 against Czechoslovakia, have foreseen that Antonin Panenka would shape to hit a piledriver before impudently chipping the ball down the centre of the goal?

Unpredictability can however be a double-edged sword, as demonstrated by France’s Zinedine Zidane. The Frenchman went from one extreme to the other during the climactic deciding match at Germany 2006. After a moment of genius enabled him to get the better of Gianluigi Buffon from the penalty spot, a moment of madness earned him an early bath for a head butt on Azzurri defender Marco Materrazzi. It may also have prevented the mercurial midfielder from ending his career on a high by lifting the Trophy for a second time.

Before the match, I told myself that Pele was just flesh and bones like the rest of us. Later I realised I was wrong.

Another Final, another penalty and another flash of inspiration. Germany’s Andreas Brehme, a solid defender and natural left-footer, won his country the title in 1990, scoring the game’s only goal from 12 yards with his right foot. So was it a spur-of-the-moment thing or a tactic worked out in advance? Apparently neither, according to the man himself: "I cleared my head of any thoughts. All I wanted to do was get the ball in the back of the net".

Even goalkeepers are also prone to moments of brilliance and folly. Rene Higuita’s penchant for risk-taking earned him the moniker ‘El Loco’ (The Madman). The Colombian keeper’s most memorable exploit occurred during a friendly match away to England when, instead of electing to catch an aimless cross lofted towards his goal, he dived forward and cleared the ball to safety with both heels. The "scorpion kick" was born, to the delight of the Wembley spectators. "Some people say you have to be a little crazy to be a good goalkeeper," the Cafetero keeper told some years later.

From jelly legs to legendWhile Rene Higuita made his name with a remarkable display of coolness, another keeper’s apparent lack of composure has also become part of footballing folklore. During the final of the European Champion Clubs' Cup against Roma in 1984, Liverpool No1 Bruce Grobbelaar played a decisive part in the Reds’ penalty shoot-out victory.

Before facing Bruno Conti’s spot kick, he playfully bit the net behind the goal as if eating spaghetti. He then went all wobbly-kneed as Francesco Graziani was preparing to take his kick. The distracted Giallorossi players both missed the target and the Zimbabwean stopper’s crazy antics cemented his place in the Reds’ hall of fame.

The unfortunate Italian penalty-takers might have bruised more than their pride that day, had they been wearing Inter Milan shirts. Talented Nerazzurro striker Alessandro Altobelli had an erratic side which was enough to exasperate opponents and team-mates alike. German midfielder Hansi Muller found this out to his cost during an Italian top-flight league match against Avellino in 1983. Having had the misfortune to play a misplaced pass, he then saw his tempestuous team-mate rush over and slap him in the face!

According to France’s Jean-Pierre Papin, who himself spent his playing days pulling spectacular goals out of the hat, there is no point trying to explain away such unpredictable behaviour. "It’s difficult to analyse yourself," remarks the former striker. "Anyway, one way or another, whether you crack up in front of the whole world or all alone, everyone cracks up sooner or later."

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Crazy or Genius ?

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