If you love football, you probably love goals. The game doesn’t culminate when the final whistle blows, when the teams shake hands, exchange jerseys, and walk back into the locker rooms. No, every moment of the game, every pass, every second, every run, builds up to the point where the ball snakes past the defending team, past the goalkeeper making the final stand, and hits the back of the net.
The roars of excitement and anger start to build the closer a team gets to the net, and then, almost in tandem, the stadium reaches crescendo, and at the center of it all, eleven voices join in. It’s the most glorious moment in a game, and if we’re lucky, it happens more than once in ninety minutes.
This does not celebrate those moments.
This is about the bitten-off roars, the fist punches that don’t complete their skyward trajectory, the hugs that will never be. This is about celebrating the people who put their bodies in the way of that perfect moment that will never come.
Defenders rarely get credit for the excellent work they do. Take legends like Javier Mascherano, for example. A veritable rock1 in any team he’s on, Mascherano is known for how well he shuts down the other team’s attacks, sometimes with great personal sacrifice on his part. His heroism shone through in the 2014 Men’s World Cup semi-final, when Mascherano took down Arjen Robben in extra time just as Robben was about to give the Netherlands a 1-0 lead. Mascherano’s tackle resulted in a torn anus and the game going to penalties, which Argentina won. A goal would have changed the game completely, but it would be egregious of us to wish for one when the act of preventing it was so heroic.2
Turning decidedly away from heroism, we must remember that it isn’t always defenders who make those heart-stopping, dream-crushing saves. When the hopes and dreams of your club or your nation are on the line, everyone does their best to completely squash any chance the other side might get, even at the risk of becoming the villain of the story.3 Luis “Teeth” Suarez’s handball against Ghana in the 2010 Men’s World Cup led to his send-off, Ghana missing the penalty they were awarded, and Uruguay winning the game on penalties. Suarez, much as he has throughout his career, did what he had to do, and has bravely borne the resentment of millions of football fans since then.
Of course, defense doesn’t always have to be this dramatic. Much like the goals they prevent, defensive genius sometimes just involves buttery smoothness and two people in perfect sync with each other.4 Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta created magic together for years at both AC Milan and Italy. Maldini, one of the greatest defenders the game ever saw, had a talent for marking attackers and applying enough pressure on them to dispossess them without the whistle being blown. Nesta was often the last line of defense for his teams after even the goalkeeper had faltered. The tackles, the interceptions, the battles won were always more muted than the goals that Maldini and Nesta prevented would have been, but that doesn’t mean they were any less beautiful.
And then there’s the saves that we still have etched in our minds. The USA-Sweden 2015 Women’s World Cup game may have ended 0-0, but the moment of the match (and the one we surely all remember) was Meghan Klingenberg’s incredible 76th minute goal line clearance. Neven Subotic’s run and slide against Bayern Munich to deny Robben’s tap-in is similarly an unforgettable moment, even if the scoreline isn’t particularly memorable.5 And how about that time a puppy saved a goalkeeper after a terrible mistake6 during a third division game in Argentina?
Unfortunately, most of those incredible saves fade from our collective memories much sooner than goals scored do. How many of us still remember or talk about José Giménez throwing his head in the way of the ball and—even worse—in the way of a shoe full of studs to keep the ball from the net? Or Ben Mee doing the same with his face? Defenders don’t get enough glory from stopping a goal, even when they put themselves in the way of injury.7 The stadium doesn’t roar while the players run to each other and celebrate. If they are lucky, they get a moment to collect themselves and take a breath when the ball goes out of play. If they’re not, the ball is still in the penalty box and there are still attackers trying to get past them.
Let’s put it this way: when a striker, a midfielder, and a defender walk into a school, the striker will almost definitely tease the defender about how no child would have fantasies of growing up to become a left-back. It’s hard out there for defenders. So when your team is on the back foot and you’re biting your nails watching a goal you think is inevitable creep closer and closer, only to be thwarted at the very last second by a defender, don’t just let out that sigh of relief. Scream out your delight, hug the people sitting next to you,8 and generally make as much noise as you would if your team had just scored.
1 Albeit a very mobile rock, because non-mobile rocks are terrible at football
2 In all seriousness, it’s just a game. Let’s stop celebrating horrific injuries sustained in the run of play.
3 And sometimes, a national persona non grata forever!
4 The Jaeger pilots of your team, if you will
5 For neutral fans, anyway
6 And while we’re on the subject again: let’s stop doing this! It’s just a game, folks!!
7 Only with their consent, obviously