**This blog post draws inspiration from the capturing the game assignment that our class did in the beginning of the year. I noticed that quite a few of the assignments described phenomenal goals from the perspective of the goal scorer. However, I didn’t notice any of the posts describe the anguish, despair, or embarrassment that comes from the players on the opposite side of those goals. This post attempts to capture the “low” moments experienced in soccer. Every phenomenal goal has two stories. The story of the winners, and the story of the losers. This post captures the stories of the latter. **
1-0. Aggregate score. Barcelona. Manchester United. Leg two. Barcelona, Spain.
April 16th, 2019 – Camp Nou. The lights shone down on the players as if their ascension to heaven was almost complete. The pitch, the fans, the lights, were startling. 96,708 strong. Chanting. Cheering. Screaming. The brisk Barcelona air greeted the players with a cool embrace as they ran out onto the field. Jumping. Stretching. Trying desperately to temper their pent-up nervous energy. No matter how many televised games they’ve played, nothing can ever numb a player to the exhilaration of walking out of that tunnel.
This Champions League game featured two of the most storied soccer clubs in history. Barcelona and Manchester United. The players intuitively understood the importance of the meeting. Soccer on its biggest stage, with its biggest teams. United had just shocked the world in Paris, winning an all-time classic, in order to advance to play Barcelona. The belief was there. David De Gea could feel it. The two hour and 25-minute flight. The bus ride from the hotel. The locker-room. There was a subtle confidence to this United side despite playing an overwhelmingly talented Barcelona team. A team that had Lionel Messi.
Indeed, the players felt an almost otherworldly connection to this game. Exactly 20 years ago, United pulled off what is now referred to as the Miracle in Barcelona. A Champions League final match at the Camp Nou that pitted England’s champion, Manchester United, against Germany’s champion, Bayern Munich. In that fated match, United scored two late goals in extra time to win the Champions League final 2-1, stunning the world in the process. The scorer of the winning goal, coincidentally, was Ole Gunner Solskjaer. 20 years later, Ole now stands on the touchline managing the very team, in the very stadium, that he had scored that majestic goal so many years ago.
This game meant more to De Gea than he was letting on. Besides the history of his club, De Gea had his own personal connection to Barcelona. Born in Madrid, De Gea understood well the battle for Catalonia independence and the pain that it has caused his nation. And nothing in the world represented Catalonia more concretely than Barcelona and its football team, a team he had grown up villainizing.
De Gea walks out to his posts. Listening to the jeers, the insults, the Catalonia song of independence. But he is determined that this time, he will be the one singing.
The game starts well for United. De Gea barks out instructions to his back four. Desperate to keep his group together against one of the most vaunted attacks in football. As goalkeeper, he is the only player who can see the whole field. And he knows, how devastating Lionel Messi can be.
1-0. After just 16 minutes, United’s concentration wavers. United’s captain for the night, Ashley Young, gets caught on the ball and a wild clearance falls to Messi. After a brief second of magic, Messi unleashes a patented left foot curler. Tantalizingly close to De Gea’s outstretched arm, the ball zooms into the back of the net. Whoosh. Another fantastic goal to add to Messi’s illustrious career. However, United knows that the tie isn’t quite over. There are still 75 minutes left to play, and two goals wins them the tie. United’s defenders, Phil Jones and Victor Lindelof, implore their attacking players to keep pressing. The game can still be won.
That belief wavers quickly. Barcelona is soon attacking United again, a mere three minutes after the opening goal. Seconds it feels like for United’s defenders. Coutinho makes a driving run into United’s final third. McTominay challenges him 35 yards out. Showing his strength and using his left shoulder, McTominay nudges Coutinho off the ball. The next passage of play blurs. The ball bundles loose to the United midfielder, Fred, who attempts to use his right foot to pull the ball back. The touch is heavy. Coutinho senses the poor touch and applies pressure. Fred anticipates the foul from Coutinho and sticks his left foot out. Bam! The ball is nicked from his feet as Messi pounces on it.
Messi seizes the ball and then glides down field toward De Gea’s goal. He dribbles exclusively with his left foot. Pat. Pat. Pat. Messi’s glistening white boots deftly control the ball as if on a string. Three short dribbles are all it takes to get to United’s 18-yard box with ease. Messi then contorts his body left before snapping violently back right. United’s defender Phil Jones knows Messi’s tendencies well. He forces Messi onto his weaker right foot. And then wap. Messi strikes the ball with his right foot. A tame and mild effort right to De Gea. Jones is pleased with himself. Disaster averted. Messi driving at a defender at the 18-yard box has ended in embarrassment for so many. Not today.
The ball rolls slightly to De Gea’s left. An easy save. He has made that exact same save thousands of times. A simple roller that requires him to get down to his left. As the ball rolls closer, he sees the imprinted white UEFA stars glisten. Accented by a touch of orange. He gets down to make the save. Casually. Maybe too casually. As De Gea looks down at his hands, they are empty. The ball has inexplicably gone through him. Under his left armpit, the ball travels agonizingly slowly as it makes its way into the back of the net.
2-0. The stadium is stunned. It practically takes a collective breathe as if not understanding what their eyes are seeing. De Gea? A howler? One of the best goalkeepers in the world? De Gea’s United teammates don’t know exactly what they had just witnessed either. De Gea, United player of the year from 2014-2016, the only consistent presence during those three tumultuous years, had just let that goal in? Beyond the fans, the commentators, and the teams themselves, De Gea himself is stunned. What just happened? De Gea slowly picks himself up. Turning away from the ball that is in the goal. Looking down at his feet. Avoiding the blistering gazes from his teammates. He is disgusted with himself. His coach simply turns away and walks towards the bench. Chris Smalling, another United defender, picks the ball out of the United net and offers a weak condolence to De Gea.
De Gea barely registers it. This one stings. United’s hope, that had been so strong just 20 minutes prior walking out of the tunnel, had just been violently deflated. There won’t be another Miracle in Barcelona. De Gea then thinks of his countrymen and country, Spain. In the very center of disobedience and disrespect shown to his nation, he falters. He is ashamed. He is embarrassed. He is defeated.
4-0. Aggregate score. Barcelona. Manchester United. Leg Two. Barcelona, Catalonia.