FIFA World Cup 2018

Shot Through the Heart

Aditya Iyer is the sports editor at Open
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There is no greater humiliation than scoring an own goal. In the very first week of the World Cup, as many as five footballers have suffered it

MOROCCO’S AZIZ Bouhaddouz scored a goal at the World Cup. That’s all he was asked to do. That’s all he did. That’s all he perhaps ever hoped for. The substitute striker was introduced late into Morocco’s opening match of their campaign, against fellow lightweights Iran, with the sole intention of breaking the deadlock. To score a goal. But when he did, when he beat the goalkeeper and the ball rustled against the net, the moment fast unravelled into the lowest point of his career and life. Bouhaddouz’s own goal was also one of the most devastating moments of the first round of this World Cup’s ongoing group stage, setting a precedent of sorts.

The ignoble record for the most own goals scored in a World Cup, six, was set back in France 1998. Within a week of Russia 2018 kicking-off and at just about the quarter-way stage match-wise, this tournament has already witnessed five of these shockers. Four of them were registered in the very first round. Since Bouhaddouz, Australia’s Aziz Behich (it’s not been a good Cup for Azizs) scored a late winner for France, Nigeria’s Oghenekaro Etebo gave Croatia a critical lead, and Thiago Cionek’s error proved fatal for Poland against Senegal. (The very first goal of the second round of the group stage too was an own goal, scored by Egypt’s Ahmed Fathi in its match against Russia, the loss all but knocking the north African nation out of the tournament).

Several grander accidents, involving international football’s heavyweights, occurred across various venues of Russia in close succession. In Moscow, defending champions Germany lost to Mexico, and Argentina were held to a draw by the smallest country ever at a World Cup, Iceland (in its debut game, no less). And at Rostov-on-Don, five-time Cup winners Brazil couldn’t better Switzerland. But machines (Germany), teams (Brazil) and talismans (Argentina) don’t suffer heartbreaks. Humans do. So, to truly comprehend suffering, we must focus on a contest between mortals, occurring in the apt surrounds of St Petersburg—a land of Dostoevskian tragedies.

The flapping wings of a butterfly can not only influence a tornado, according to Chaos Theory, but do so several thousand miles away and several weeks later. The innocuous cause, in Morocco’s case, was defender Nordin Amrabat, who had collided skulls with Iran’s Vahid Amiri and had come off worse for wear. As a concussed Amrabat, a rightback in his team, flailed his arms for help, for Morocco it represented the flapping of the butterfly’s wings. A havoc- wreaking hurricane couldn’t be too far away.

A woozy Nordin Amrabat was replaced by Sofyan Amrabat, the oncoming one a midfielder unlike his defender brother. At the same time, Morocco’s manager Hervé Renard also replaced his striker, Ayoub Kaabi, who simply hadn’t penetrated Iran’s defences often enough, with fellow forward Bouhaddouz. With both teams looking to find a winner at this late hour (76 minutes had passed and no goals had been scored), Renard had compromised his backline, especially to the right of the box in a Nordin-shaped void, and three defenders were saddled with the work of four men.

The permanency of an own goal, on the scoresheet and in the soccer's mind, ensures that solace is hard to find

In the 14 minutes of regular time that he was on the field, Bouhaddouz didn’t fare much better than his striker predecessor. His first call to action was in the opening minute of injury time (the 91st minute), when he physically broke up a scuffle, dragging away teammate Mehdi Benatia from Iran’s Mehdi Taremi before the fight got out of hand. Then, two minutes later, he was summoned back to strengthen Morocco’s defence against a dangerous-looking set- piece. Sofyan, in his attempt to make up for his rightback brother’s absence, had conceded a free kick to the right of the Moroccan box and Bouhaddouz was added to the wall; again, to the extreme right of the line, where Nordin would’ve stood.

Iran’s Ehsan Hajsafi curled the ball into the near-post. The swing of the shot missed the Iranian gathering altogether, but Bouhaddouz, afraid that Taremi would reach the cross, followed the curving trajectory and met the ball with his head, hoping for a clearance. Instead, it was a spectacular goal—body parallel to the floor, rotating head turning the ball goalward—apart from the fact that it landed at the back of his own net. Once gravity took Bouhaddouz to the ground, he stayed there in disbelief, his face buried in the grass even as the ecstatic Iranians broke into wild celebrations. “Oh, dear,” said the commentator on air. “He’ll want the St Petersburg turf to open up and swallow him whole.”

There is no good time to score an own goal—football’s version of an unintended suicide. Still, Bouhaddouz couldn’t have chosen a more inopportune time to feed the noose; in the sixth and last minute of the added time on the clock. Almost instantly, the referee’s final whistle blew and a weeping Bouhaddouz had to be physically escorted off the field, with one teammate under each of his armpits. In all of sport, not just football, there is no greater humiliation. So strong are the voices of anguish that the victim, Bouhaddouz in this case, feels like the culprit for having let not just himself down, but his team and country as well. Not even his harshest critic would’ve blamed Bouhaddouz, but that’s the thing about own goals—the blame spreads from within the scorer’s mind and spreads cancerously.

Morocco's Aziz Bouhaddouz couldn't have chosen a more inopportune time to feed the noose. In the last minute of added time against Iran, he scored an own goal

THE FIRST GOAL of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, incidentally, was an own goal, scored for Croatia by Brazil’s incredible leftback, Marcelo. Despite winning that opening game thanks to two goals from Neymar, Marcelo was a shaken man long after the match in Sao Paulo had ended. That night, somewhere within the snaking confines of the Corinthians Arena, a flock of journalists approached Marcelo in the free-zone for a soundbite. “I was in shock. I was just thinking that I don’t want to hurt the team,” he told us in Portuguese. “My world didn’t fall apart, though, because I had the support of my colleagues.” Once he left, a Brazilian journalist who helped translate Marcelo’s words turned to me and said: “Had we lost this match 1-0, a first World Cup game at home in 64 years, Marcelo would have been put on suicide watch.”

According to Italian legend Andrea Pirlo, a player often cannot get over his mistakes because his country’s rabid fans won’t allow him to. In his book I Think Therefore I Play, Pirlo takes us behind the scenes of Italy’s 2006 World Cup campaign. And into their claustrophobic minds following the 1-1 draw to USA, a match that witnessed an own goal by Italy (Cristian Zaccardo in the 27th minute), which within a minute resulted in Daniele De Rossi being sent off for losing his cool and drawing blood from an opponent.

‘What the fans don’t know (apart from a few guilty ones) is that in camp, my team-mate started to receive menacing letters, insults and threats against his family… Judging by the spelling and grammar mistakes that cropped up in between the insults, they (the scribblers) lacked intellect as well as dignity,’ writes Pirlo. ‘I remember long periods, whole days in fact, when Daniele didn’t want to see another soul.’ Colombia’s coach at the 1994 World Cup, Francisco Maturana, still wishes the captain of his team, Andrés Escobar, stayed indoors as well, like De Rossi. But Escobar didn’t, and the repercussions of not doing so made his own goal against USA the most infamous moment in World Cup history.

At the Rosebowl in Pasadena, USA, Escobar’s own goal gave the hosts a 2-1 win, and Colombia were knocked out of the tournament in the group stages. Escobar and the Colombian side once had the blessings of the most notorious drug lord of them all, Pablo Escobar. In fact, cocaine-king Pablo owned the club that Andrés and several other national team members played for, Atletico Nacional. But with Pablo murdered by a rival cartel just seven months before the World Cup, the humiliated national side were on their own when they returned to their motherland.

“‘Andrés, stay at home’, I tried to warn him,” says Maturana in a documentary called The Two Escobars. “But Andrés said ‘No, I must show my face to my people’.’’ In fact, Escobar had written something similar in a newspaper column just a day ago. In three separate paragraphs, he had written the words: ‘Life doesn’t end here.’

His did. Escobar’s did. Two hours after he had left home, Andrés was riddled with six bullets in the car park of a Medellín nightclub, while still strapped to his seat. He was 27.

TWO DAYS AFTER his own goal against Iran, Bouhaddouz wept in a television interview that was screened all across Morocco. “I am an idiot. And I am paying for it today,” he said. “I would like to apologise to the team, the fans and all 35 million Moroccans. Please forgive me.” Support for Bouhaddouz, thankfully, poured in from unexpected quarters. Iran forward Reza Goochannejhad used the platform of Instagram to deliver his message. ‘Don’t let this own goal bring you down. We are all professional sportsmen and this is a part of football,’ Goochannejhad wrote. ‘I don’t know you personally but wanted to wish you all the best in your career. In life, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.’ The losing, footballers can deal with; the guilt of being the singular reason behind a loss, they cannot.

‘Andrés Escobar was riddled with six bullets in the car park of a Medellín nightclub ten days after his own goal knocked Colombia out of the 1994 World Cup in USA

Key in the word ‘Fathi’—Egypt’s own-goal scorer—in Twitter’s search bar and here are some of the results: ‘Petition to hang Ahmed Fathi in a public area (6 likes)’; ‘Ahmed Fathi’s wife is gonna file for divorce, his parents are gonna disown him and he’s not coming out of Russia alive (27 likes)’; ‘Ahmed Fathi going back to Egypt in a casket (70 likes)’. Fathi’s mistake wasn’t even the biggest factor for the loss in the end, given that Russia won by a difference of two goals. But in the minds of the football watcher, and player, there is no graver crime than an own goal. Not even missing a penalty, which can have a far more immediate effect to the team’s position.

At this World Cup, two penalties were missed on the same day, June 16th (Fact: Only one penalty was missed in the entirety of Brazil 2014). Lionel Messi’s strike was guessed correctly by Iceland’s goalkeeper Hannes Halldórsson, while Peru’s Christian Cueva shot sailed so far above the bar that Denmark’s goalie Kasper Schmeichel didn’t need to move a muscle. In Messi’s case, it cost Argentina a win, and Cueva’s miss denied Peru a draw. Both were devastated; Cueva combusted into hot tears and refused to leave the field at half-time. But both were forgiven by their fans. Cueva’s name was even sung by a flood of Peruvians at the stadium in Saransk once the fixture ended. “That filled me with happiness,” he said later. It wasn’t his only solace. “Also, one of the greatest players [Messi] missed one too.”

There’s one major difference between scoring an unwanted goal and not scoring a needed goal. The penalty-misser knows that he can score again (hopefully in the same tournament) and wash away the demons. The permanency of an own goal, on the scoresheet and in the scorer’s mind, ensures that solace is less hard to find, as was the case in USA 1994—a tournament highlighted by two infamous acts, an own goal and a penalty miss. Somewhere in the group stages, Escobar scored an own goal and was shot dead. In the final, Italy’s Roberto Baggio missed the net—and the trophy—with the last kick of the tournament and lived to tell the tale.