Ronaldo’s goal shows how sport can transcend tribalism in its ability to share joy
In the Champions League quarter final between Real Madrid and Juventus earlier this week, Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo – arguably one of the two greatest footballers of the contemporary game – scored a goal of breathtaking beauty. As the ball came in towards him, he leapt above the defenders surrounding him, seemed to hang in the air for a moment, apparently defying gravity, apparently denying Newton, and, in a microsecond, made a calculation in the manner that only the very elite of athletes do: how to hit the ball, where to hit the ball. Next, he swivelled his body, executed a thunderous overhead kick, and the ball rippled the top corner of the net.
The athleticism, the balletic beauty, the power, the technique, the precision of the goal was gasp-inducing. It was one of the finest goals in the history of the world’s premier club football tournament.
What happened next was unprecedented.
Despite knowing full well that this was the goal that would kill the game and send them out of the competition, Juventus supporters rose as one to rapturously applaud. Gianluigi Buffon, the Juventus goalkeeper and one of the finest keepers of the modern era, congratulated Ronaldo. After the game, Massimiliano Allegri, the Juventus coach, was lavish in his praise for the magnificent piece of play from the Madrid man.
It was a rare instance of fans and players rising above tribalism, above competitiveness, above the disappointment of losing a massively important game, to celebrate the unrivalled beauty that sport can engender.
And that is one of the biggest thrills of watching, following, and revelling in sport. Every so often comes an occasion, when you forget whom you support, you forget the crushing disappointment of loss and simply salute the magic a game is capable of showing, genuflect before genius on parade.
I am no Ronaldo fan. But I watched that goal on a loop the day after it was scored. I discussed it with friends, colleagues, and my daughter. And it considerably brightened my day. I know it brightened theirs as well. That, too, is at the heart of what loving sport can give us. We know that such things make no material difference to our lives; we know that we are unable to influence what happens on the pitch; we know that the goal was scored in a match played in a different continent between two teams I have no particular affection for; and we acknowledge that at the same time, it means both nothing and everything.
And then there is another thing. Unlike any other cultural pursuit, unlike, say, literature or cinema or ballet or music, a single, discrete, defining moment in sport can offer intense joy. A book or a film or a song needs to be appreciated in its entirety. One may marvel at an image or a sentence or a scene or a guitar riff, but it is hard to divorce it from the context of the whole work. In sport, as with the Ronaldo goal, you can delight in just that moment without paying heed to what happened in the rest of the match. When Roger Federer hits an especially majestic backhand down the line, when Gundappa Viswanath plays an unforgettable square cut or Barry Richards one of his classic cover drives, when Shane Warne turns the ball square, a spectator thrills to the moment. The rest of the match, its context, its narrative, even its result, ceases to have any consequence.
That is an indication of the purity of the pleasure watching sport offers us. Real Madrid won the quarter final against Juventus. Even had they lost, had Ronaldo scored the goal he did, thousands would still have been watching it over and over again, would still have been talking about it no end, and would have still felt just as lucky to have been touched by the fairy dust of genius.