I scored a goal once. It wasn’t a leaping header, three minutes into injury time, to give New Zealand its first point in the 2010 World Cup. It wasn’t a leaping anything; it was more of a plod. But it was very satisfying to me.
I used to play social football in Dunedin for a team then called, if I recall correctly, Lord Louis’ XI – also the name of the cricket team many of us played in during the summer. We had some good players, but I wasn’t one of them. I used to play as a fullback, but I had the game sense of a boneless chicken and the tackling philosophy of Vinnie Jones, meaning that I was a more a menace to my own team’s chances of success than to the opposition’s.
So I was shifted back to goalkeeper. Here, I developed skills in advancing to, but failing to meet, corners and crosses; flapping my hands menacingly at oncoming strikers; and picking the ball out of the back of the net.
In one game at Logan Park, after 40 or so minutes of such ineptitude – I think we were down 8-0 by this stage – the skipper gently suggested that I take a rest from goal. He called in one of our strikers (remember the “0” in “8-0”) to do the job instead, and sent me off to join the forward line.
Knowing no other way, I set off from the goal I had been tending and chugged forward at my customary pace towards the opposition goal. I reached the centre circle. I reached half-way. I crossed half-way and entered the foreign territory of the other half. Play was proceeding around me, and to my surprise, I found myself with the ball at my feet and no-one other than the keeper between me and the opposition goal.
This is nice, I thought, and carried on chugging forwards, expecting someone to relieve me of the ball. No-one did. When I got to the edge of the sixteen-yard box, it occurred to me that, since I was now a striker, it wouldn’t be inappropriate for me to try shooting for goal.
I unleashed a right-footed shot that, much to my amazement, swirled in the air, swung viciously, beat the opposition goalie’s dive, and flew into the back of the net. (Well, it would have done if they’d provided nets to our grade. In reality, it rolled onto the road that led to the old Dunedin Public Art Gallery.)
I seem to remember my team-mates congratulating me, but I was too stunned to pay much attention. I don’t think I touched the ball again all game, and I think we lost 18-1, but in that one moment I knew why people all over the world, women and men, young and old, play the beautiful game.