The best goals are the products of instinct: split-second improvisations through which inner genius can surface.
That was on display Wednesday in the waning minutes of a friendly match between Sweden and England, when Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedish striker, tried an audacious overhead kick and watched from his back as the ball looped into the goal from an almost unthinkable distance.
The reaction was immediate. Steven Gerrard, the captain of the English team, after the game called it the best goal he had witnessed. Twitter rattled with wonderment. Office computer screens toggled toward YouTube replays. All were astonished.
So where does this one rank among the best?
That list is rather well maintained among soccer fans. There is a somewhat firm consensus that the greatest was scored by Diego Maradona in the quarterfinal round of the 1986 World Cup. Skipping like a rock on water, he zigzagged past five England defenders, dribbling 60 yards to deliver the match-winner. Every spectacular goal has been held against this standard ever since.
When delving into this sort of discussion, it is probably helpful to break any goal down to some elemental parts.
There is the goal itself, stripped of context.
Ibrahimovic's goal was a masterpiece of body control and skill. Chasing a hopeful long ball, he slowed as goalkeeper Joe Hart wandered from the penalty area to head the ball clear.
Ibrahimovic peeked quickly to his right toward the patch of grass where the ball would land. Five steps from there and he was airborne. His back to the goal, legs gangly above his head, Ibrahimovic struck the ball with his right foot, arched his back as he fell to the ground, and saw the shot sail from 30 yards away and land inside the near post.
As a moment of sudden and pure technique, it called to mind Zinedine Zidane's goal for Real Madrid in the 2002 Champions League final, when he struck a ball that dropped from a stratospheric height out of midair with his left foot and sent it curling into the upper corner of the net. Marco Van Basten scored a stunning volley of his own for the Netherlands in the 1988 European Championship final, pummeling the ball into the net from a minuscule angle.
Beyond the goal, one can also consider the goal scorer.
Ibrahimovic, 31, is recognizable for his immense creativity, his irrepressible personality and his tattooed frame, regularly topped with a samurai ponytail. He is the son of a Bosnian father and Croatian mother. He is the author of the revealing and delightfully titled autobiography "I am Zlatan." He once argued with Pep Guardiola, his manager in his brief spell at Barcelona, about how he was being used, chiding him, "It's like you bought a Ferrari and drive it like a Fiat."
And his overhead goal Wednesday, born of audacity and invention, felt distinctly like an expression of this character.
Ibrahimovic's mercurial personality may remind some of Eric Cantona, an eccentric French genius who starred for Manchester United in the mid-1990s. He produced his own stunning goal in 1996, when, in a game against Sunderland, he finished a powerful dribbling move from midfield with a delicate chip over the goalkeeper - and then barely celebrated it.
Finally, a goal and its scorer can be elevated by their context.
This may be the realm in which Ibrahimovic's effort fell short. It was a friendly match, after all, and the goal - Ibrahimovic's fourth of the game - was scored in injury time with the game decided.
Like Maradona's goal, others considered among the best occurred under high stakes. In a 2-1 quarterfinal win over Argentina during the 1998 World Cup, Dennis Bergkamp of the Netherlands delicately trapped a 60-yard missile with the toe of his right shoe and then made two more touches with the same foot for a now-legendary finish.
The best argument for Ibrahimovic's goal would be that there has never been one that looked quite like it. Bicycle-kick goals are a rare, delightful sight. Ones from such distances are simply not supposed to occur.
Conversely, many have completed remarkable slaloming runs similar to Maradona's from 1986. The nominees for FIFA's Puskas Award for the year's best goal were announced this week - shortly before Ibrahimovic's goal - and they include individual dribbling runs from midfield by Lionel Messi and Neymar.
Everyone has his favorite, and the debate, to the benefit of soccer fans, will rage on.
© 2012 New York Times News Service
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Story first published on: Friday, 16 November 2012 12:39 IST