This is an extract from the excellent Mundial Magazine Issue Six – available to buy now.
Sometimes it feels like watching the ball bounce into the net at high velocity off the crossbar elicits a primal sexual urge. Why? We sought to find out once and for all…
September 1st, 2003 – a game played well into the balmy Spanish night courtesy of a scheduling anomaly. Ronaldinho, arms swinging at his side, galloping legs like a thoroughbred, tore into the opposition half. It was his debut for Barcelona, hair flopping around in sweating rivulets, streaking past white-faced, white-kitted Sevilla defenders in ones and twos. He moved on at speed towards the goal and, without stopping, drilled one long and hard and true, following through with his right leg and lifting his left off the floor, visions of Bobby Charlton vibing right through him as the ball sails past the goalkeeper. The shot smashed off the crossbar and into the ground and then back up into the roof of the net. He flapped away in celebration like the happiest bird in Catalonia.
Some goals just look nicer than others, don’t they?
April 2016. I don’t remember which day. It was rapidly approaching morning and I was half-drunk. After a night out I had found myself deep in a serious YouTube hole. I was sitting in bed, talking to myself, watching video after video of shots go thwup-twong off crossbars for about forty minutes, loving it. The way that the entire crowd just screams Shhhhhhhhhahhurrrghhahyeahhhhhhhurrrrrr! as they go properly mad. The way the excitement was even more guttural, more animal. I was mesmerised by the chaos of it all.
The next day I asked some friends in the pub if it was just me, knowing that it wasn’t. It can’t have been. I’ve been in enough “How much would you give me if I could hit the bar from here?” wagers to appreciate the fetishism of the crossbar. But why the obsession with this 24-foot long, white-lacquered piece of metal? It’s just a thing that holds together a few poles and some netting.
As I searched for validation I dutifully studied every Match of the Day goal of the season, from Ernie Hunt’s volley for Coventry in 1970 to Dele Alli’s hype-baiting screamer this season. Stunningly, just four goals in those forty-five years hit the bar on the way in – Gazza’s free-kick in the 1991 FA Cup final, via the keeper’s hand, Matt Le Tissier’s long-ranger in ‘94, a Tony Yeboah classic in ‘95, and Trevor Sinclair’s overhead kick versus Barnsley in ‘96. Four? That’s simply not on. I knew better. Despite this early-to-mid-nineties run, there was clearly some kind of anti-crossbar bias bubbling away at the BBC.
Raging with indignation, in a move which has often been suggested to me but one I have rarely exercised, I sought professional opinion.
“I, uh…” said Dr. David Papineau, Professor of Philosophy at King’s College London. “I imagine it’s just the excitement of it all. The feeling of ‘Is it on target? Yes… No… YES! It’s in!’”
“I don’t see why hitting the underneath of the crossbar isn’t considered even more perfect than hitting the top corner,” he added as I punched the air in vindication, “because, after all, it is even harder to stop.”
Perfection. But could it be, I wondered, that the allure is simply an act of rebellion? Is the sight of seeing a ball crash in off the underside of a steel bar just a violent act in an increasingly sanitised game? If, as Dr. Papineau later said, all goals carry with them a form of cathartic release, then surely ones that wham in spectacularly off the bar and leave the sonic rattle of shaking metal behind are the ultimate?
“OH, LOOK AT THAT! WHAT A GOAL!”
August 1995. A clipped ball into Rod Wallace, a knockdown to Tony Yeboah, he volleys it first time and it flies through the air like a coruscating ball of light, past a flailing David James, butting in off the crossbar on its way to being infinitely soundtracked by Blur’s ‘Song 2’ on countless Best Goals compilations.
“OH, WHAT A STUNNING GOAL!”
Tony Yeboah. Shonkily nicknamed “Yegoala” by a clearly drunk Leeds fan somewhere, which just happened to catch on, he was a striker who didn’t seem to know how to score ‘regular’ goals. A man whose name became intrinsically linked to volleys, the Ghanaian scourge of crossbars.
“Yeboah…” It’s September, now. A poor clearing header is taken down on his barrel chest and knocked forward with one of his huge knees “…on he goes…” A Wimbledon defender, identity lost in the sands of time and pixelated replays, runs away from him as the ball bobbles around Yeboah’s shins for a moment on the choppy Selhurst Park pitch. And then comes a moment of distinct clarity. The ball sits up perfectly, just a foot from the turf, and everyone around him seems to stop. Yeboah ploughs through the ball like he’s trying to burst the fucking thing, it screams past the ‘keeper and goes in off the crossbar. Twice. Deflecting into the ground before heading back up from whence it came, the ball kisses the metal once more and settles in the net. The striker flexes his muscles and holds two fists to the air in celebration.
Watching it now, twenty years later, as he moves to the ball you instinctively hold your breath. You know what’s coming. You need to save up the requisite lung power. You hold it, the sound rumbling in your chest. You finally let it all out…YEEEEEBOOOOOOAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!
There’s your cathartic release, then.
“I’ll be honest: I’ve never thought about it before,” says Sam Sommers, Associate Professor of Psychology at Tufts University in Boston, and co-author of This Is Your Brain On Sports. “The unexpected always draws more attention. It’s a rare event, the ball hitting the crossbar and going in; the angle becomes interesting, the sound is distinctive, the frame of the goal maybe shakes a bit. It’s unusual and we tend to remember the unusual. People think it’s cool when the ball clangs off the foul pole for a home run in baseball as well.
“I also wonder about the counter-factual aspect. As in, here you have a ball that literally wouldn’t have gone in if it had been inches higher. The “if only…” and “but for…” kind of thought process is an emotionally powerful one. We’re more upset when, say, we miss a flight by thirty seconds than by thirty minutes. Being close but falling short is excruciating; being close but pulling it off is exhilarating.
“Here you perhaps have the perfect illustration of the notion of sports as a ‘game of inches’. It’s this shot that you can’t tell if it’s going in or not, you’re on the edge of your seat, it makes a noise, it changes direction, it still goes in… And you can’t help but think ‘whew’ or ‘goddammit— just another inch or two up and it’s not a goal’.”
The proximity to failure only to pull it back at the last moment in a very cool way – perfect imperfection – does feel extremely good. Think about all those times you nearly dropped your phone, inevitably smashing the screen on the floor, only to style it out in front of your peers. They smile at you, they cheer. Maybe they even clap a bit. You feel terrific, right?
I asked Joe Dixon, club performance psychologist at Stoke City, what he thought. He said it was a mixture of the brave and the rare since, and I’m paraphrasing, it’s dead hard to smack one in off the crossbar, what with your margin for error so clearly, literally, lineated.
“Research has indicated that the part of the brain associated with intense pleasure is, obviously, most active at the time a goal is scored,” says Dixon. “This research demonstrated how activity in the anterior cingulate cortex was substantially higher when a goal was scored than at other periods during the game.
“Goals being scored are a particularly strong emotional stimulus for football fans, but it also seems realistic to suggest that the emotional response could be stronger to goals that are more difficult to attain; they are rarer and, by implication, aesthetically more pleasing — like those that hit the bar and go in.”
You can’t argue with science. To find out what made bedroomed nerds spend their waking hours splicing together videos of goals to Mozart or terrible Europop on iMovie, along with what made these videos so addictive for us normal people to watch, I had to find out how the brain processes such works of art.
When we see something beautiful – a brilliant goal, a pair of trainers, one of those lovely big dogs with a silly face – our body pumps us full of chemicals. That much I knew already. Your blood turns into a delicious cocktail of dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin – the “hug drug” – and you feel fantastic. But deeper than that, truly great art – the Sistine Chapel, say, or Big Tony Yeboah – can inspire something so much more.
I tried to read a study of classic art and neuroaesthetics – “Neural correlates of viewing paintings: Evidence from a quantitative meta-analysis of functional magnetic resonance imaging data” – to find out why it gives everyone a steel-beam erection to see a wicked goal go in off the bar. As we already know, viewing a beautiful painting triggers responses in parts of the brain associated with visual understanding and object recognition, but it also fires up those bits of the grey matter that react to emotions, inner thoughts, and learning.
In another study students, after visiting an art gallery, showed stronger critical thinking skills, had greater historical empathy, and became more socially tolerant. It works on adults, too. Art makes you smarter. Art can make you a better person. I’m not saying that watching re-runs of brilliant goals can transform somebody’s entire character, but I’m very close to saying precisely that. Short of kidnapping Nigel Farage and Clockwork Orange-ing him into watching hours of classic goals, I delved on.
Modern sport and the erotic are intrinsically linked, wrote Wolfgang Welsch in The Aesthetics of Everyday Life. “Today’s uncovering of the erotic element in sport is contrast to its traditional oppression…According to the traditional disciplinary model, sport was to serve to keep bodily desires in check, its inherent erotic connotations were to be kept quiet too. Today they are allowed to come to the fore. Contemporary sport is one of the spheres where the intrinsic relationship between the aesthetic and the erotic is allowed to manifest itself.”
Scientists have shown that porn – like Le Tissier Volleys part 3 – can shut off blood to parts of the brain which process visual stimuli so it can direct more to your downstairs. It’s this disconnect, coupled with an overstimulated amygdala – the bit that controls your emotions – that impedes your decision-making when you’re horny. It’s the kind of thing that makes blokes in movies cheat on the wives they love, and why something so simple, so blissfully animal – so erotique – like a ball smashing off the bar and into the net feels so fucking exciting and oddly forbidden. Ooh, you think. That shouldn’t happen. But it did – it does. And you love it…
You cast your mind back to Jon Flanagan, his half-volley against Spurs smashing in off the bar, running to the corner flag, fists clenched, a very obvious chubby in his shorts. Fair play, Flanno. Fair play.
And so with science finally backing up my guilty pleasure, I disappear back to my cave, like the Dorito-dusted YouTube auteurs who keep churning out crudely edited goal compilations, to watch more. I cannot stop. That thwup-twong of leather on metal. That Shhhhhhhhhahhurrrghhahyeahhhhhhhurrrrrr! scream. That feeling when the ball goes in off the bar and Yeboah pumps his fists. It’s all so perfect.