I was lucky enough to be in the crowd at the Maracana to witness the chest and volley that transformed Colombia’s James Rodriguez from “up-and-coming soccer star” to “integral part of the global consciousness.” Medellin’s newspaper El Colombiano dubbed the strike “The Goal Of The Consecration” which … may be too much, but I’ll go with it for now. Anyway, here are a few notes on the goal.
The first thing that struck me after the ball hit the net and I put my brain back in my skull was that the game hadn’t slowed down when James took his first touch. When speculative long range efforts beat a goalkeeper and stay on target, usually the shooter has found himself in a vast expanse of space. Time stops as everyone in the stadium realizes that the spectacular might happen and everyone on the defense lunges hopelessly and mutters an expletive under their breath. And in that vacuum, the striker has the crucial opportunity to adjust his body ever so slightly.
James did not have a vast expanse of space or time in which to work. Instead, he was forced to fire under pressure from a bad angle, so it was only when the ball started dipping, right before it slipped over Uruguayan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera’s fingers, that the crowd knew what was about to happen. But there was also something so pure about the strike, and so compelling about the striker that when the ball dipped, there was no doubt. The mood of 75,000 people in the Maracana shifted immediately, before the ball reached the goal. It was a sudden change in direction that announced, “this is going in, and it doesn’t matter what else happens.”
Also, most of the best goals, the ones that live in the minds of old Irishmen and grainy YouTube clips, beat the keeper soundly enough that there is no contact. But this, again, was different. Muslera anticipated James’ strike perfectly, and got the edge of a fingertip on it, enough to push it off the bar. That the ball still found the back of the net made the whole thing even more satisfying. There were five points of contact on the goal: chest, foot, hand, bar, ground. And somewhere between foot and ground the crowd at the Maracana exploded.
Quickly, some context: despite what you may think, there may not be a safer place on earth than the area between the Maracana Metro stop and the gates of the stadium before a World Cup match. I was asked to show my ticket a dozen times in the first hundred yards of walkway outside the train station by a series of members of the Brazilian armed forces. Once osmotically through this semi-permeable membrane of M-16s, there are a number of visible layers between you and the outside world. Police forces were the first layer. These were buttressed by army cavalry units. Then there were more units with dogs and strange plastic shoulder armor. Then a row of armored personnel carriers. Then there was a moat. It was very, very safe.
Before entering the stadium, I wandered into the Coca-Cola Shoe Store (what is a Coca-Cola shoe store? I still don’t know) set up outside the stadium where I was given a free Coca-Cola inflatable hand which was almost immediately confiscated and disposed of by security personnel. As this happened I made a joke about wasting plastic and “the circle of lifelessness moving us all” and got a stern look in response. I assume the Lion King reference was lost in translation.
All that said, while the Brazilian equivalent of Seal Team Six lurked outside, inside the stadium the first line of security was handled by volunteer ushers. And unlike every soccer match I’ve attended before, supporters of both teams were interspersed throughout the crowd. And also, since this was the second match of the day and the first was shown on the big screen, beer sales had been going for over five hours. Which is all to say that I witnessed more fist fights between men in sky blue curly wigs in one night than I thought I would in my life.
But to reduce the audience to one full of drunken hooligans would be to both miss the point and misrepresent what happened in the Maracana on Saturday. Sure, a small handful of slighted Uruguayan fans, angry about Luis Suarez’s suspension, started some fights. On aggregate the violence was far less than you might see at an average NFL game. The match and the moment was about a revived Colombia.
In the run up to the match, Colombians had seemed to outnumber Brazilians throughout Rio de Janerio, and in the Maracana, Colombian nationals represented at least two-thirds of the crowd. The visible presence of a massive cadre of middle-class Colombians was another step for a country whose reputation is still tinged by the cartels of the ’80s and ’90s and whose footballing reputation remains tied up in the death of Andres Escobar in 1994. But that was 20 years ago; when Escobar was murdered, James was just about to turn three.
And so the explosion that happened in the Maracana when James fired in what may well prove to be the goal of the tournament was about Colombia reclaiming soccer as an emotional safe haven. Sports cannot redeem, but they can serve as a place to channel emotion without the threat of real violence. For Colombia, that space had been tarnished for decades, and The Goal of the Consecration was a clear symbol of the the country’s impressive reclamation.