A ball smashing off a bar and into the net feels so exciting and so oddly forbidden…
2003, 1st September, 1.30am—a game played well into the balmy Spanish night courtesy of a scheduling anomaly. Ronaldinho, arms swinging at his side, galloping legs, teeth bared, tore into the opposition half. It was his debut for Barca, hair flopping around in sweating rivulets, streaking past white-faced, white-kitted Sevilla defenders in ones and twos as they shit themselves. He moved on at speed towards the goal and, without stopping, drilled one long and hard and true, following through with his right leg and lifting his left off the floor too as he goes, the ghost of the as-yet-undead Bobby Charlton vibing right through him, and way past the goalkeeper. The shot smashed off the crossbar and into the floor and then back up into the roof of the net. He flapped away in celebration like the happiest bird in Catalonia.
Some goals just look nicer than others, don’t they?
April 2016—I don’t remember which day. It was rapidly approaching morning, and I was half-drunk. After a night out I had found myself deep in a serious YouTube hole. I was sat in bed, talking to myself, watching video after video of shots go thwup-twong off crossbars for about forty minutes, loving it. The way that the entire crowd just screams Shhhhhhhhhahhurrrghhahyeahhhhhhhurrrrrr! as they go properly, immediately mad. The way the excitement was even more guttural, more animal. I was mesmerised by the chaos of it all.
The next day I asked some friends in the pub if it was just me, knowing that it wasn’t. It can’t have been. I’ve been in enough “How much would you give me if I could hit the bar from here?” wagers to know of the fetishism of the crossbar—a 24-foot long polished, white-lacquered steel obsession—and its power, but why? It’s just a bit of metal, like. It’s just a thing that holds together a few poles and some netting.
As I searched for immediate validation, I dutifully studied every Match of the Day goal of the season, from Ernie Hunt’s for Coventry in 1970 to Dele Alli’s juggle-and-volley at Crystal Palace. Stunningly, just four goals in those forty-five years hit the bar on the way in—Gazza’s free kick in the 1991 FA Cup semifinal, Le Tissier’s long-ranger in ‘94, a Yeboah classic in ‘95, and, just, Trevor Sinclair’s overhead kick versus Barnsley in ‘96. Four? I thought. That’s not on. I knew better. Despite this early-to-mid-nineties run, there was clearly some kind of anti-crossbar bias bubbling away at the BBC.
Raging with indignation, in a move which has often been suggested to me but one I have rarely exercised, I sought professional opinion.
“I, uh…” said Dr David Papineau, Professor of Philosophy at King’s College London. “I imagine it’s just the excitement of it all. The feeling of ‘Is it on target? Yes… No… YES! It’s in!’ I don’t see why hitting the underneath of the crossbar isn’t considered even more perfect that hitting the top corner,” he added as I punched the air, “because, after all, it is even harder to stop.”
Perfection. But could it be, I wondered, that the allure is simply an act of rebellion? Is the sight of seeing a ball crash in off the underside of a metal bar just a violent act in an increasingly neutered game? If, as Dr Papineau later said, all goals carry with them a form of cathartic release then surely ones that wham spectacularly in off the bar and leave the sonic rattle of the shaking metal in the air behind them are the cathartic-est?
August 1995. A clipped ball into Rod Wallace, a knockdown to Tony Yeboah, he volleys it first time and it flies through the air like a coruscating ball of light and past a desperate David James, butting in off the crossbar on its way to being infinitely soundtracked by ‘Song 2’ by Blur on countless Best Goals… video compilations and into the annals of history.
Tony Yeboah. Shonkily nicknamed “Yegoala” by clearly drunk Leeds fans, was a man who didn’t seem to know how to score ‘regular’ goals. A man whose name became intrinsically linked to volleys, like Ben and Jerry’s are to brain freeze and post-break-up obesity in rom-coms. He was the Ghanaian scourge of crossbars.
“Yeboah…” It’s September, now. A poor clearing header is taken down on his barrel chest and knocked forward with one of his huge, prodigious knees. “…on he goes…” A Wimbledon defender, identity lost in the sands of time and pixelated instant replays, runs away from him as the ball bobbles around Yeboah’s shins for a moment on the choppy Selhurst Park pitch. And then comes a moment of distinct clarity… The ball sits up perfectly, just a foot from the turf, and everyone around him seems to stop. Yeboah ploughs through the ball like he’s trying to burst the fucking thing and it screams past the ‘keeper and goes in off the crossbar. Twice. Deflecting intensely downwards and into the ground before heading back up from whence it came for seconds, kissing off the metal once more before it settles in the net. The striker flexes his muscles and holds two fists to the air as he runs. Watching now, twenty years later, you instinctively hold your breath. You know what’s coming. You need to save up the requisite lung power. You hold it, the sound rumbling in your chest. You finally let it all out…
There’s your cathartic release, then.
“I’ll be honest: I’ve never thought about it before…” says Sam Sommers, Associate Professor of Psychology at Tufts University in Boston, and co-author of This Is Your Brain on Sports. “The unexpected always draws more attention. It’s a rare event, the ball hitting the crossbar and going in; the angle becomes interesting, the sound is distinctive, the frame of the goal maybe shakes a bit… It’s unusual, and we tend to and remember the unusual. It’s more memorable; we like to say we’ve seen something rare. People think it’s cool when the ball clangs off the foul pole for a home run in baseball as well.
“I also wonder about the counterfactual aspect. As in, here you have a ball that literally wouldn’t have gone in if it had been inches higher. The “if only…” and “but for…” kind of thought process is an emotionally powerful one,” says Sommers. “We’re more upset when, say, we miss a flight by thirty seconds than by thirty minutes. Being close but falling short is excruciating; being close but pulling it off is exhilarating.
“Here you perhaps have the perfect illustration of the notion of sports as a “game of inches.” It’s this shot that you can’t tell if it’s going in or not, you’re on the edge of your seat, it makes a noise, it changes direction, it still goes in… And you can’t help but think “whew” or “goddammit— just another inch or two up and it’s not a goal.”
The proximity to failure only to pull it back at the last moment in a very cool way—that perfect imperfection—does feel extremely good. Think about all of those times you nearly dropped your phone only to style it out in front of your peers. They smile at you, they cheer. Maybe they clap a bit. You feel fucking terrific right after that, right?
I asked Joe Dixon, club performance psychologist at Stoke City, what he thought. He said it was a mixture of the brave and the rare since, and I’m paraphrasing, it’s dead hard to smack one in off the crossbar, what with your margin for error so clearly, literally lineated.
“Research investigating the response of brains of football fans to goals being scored has indicated that the part of the brain associated with intense pleasure is, obviously, most active at the time a goal is scored, compared to other times during the game”, says Dixon. “This research demonstrated how activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of the brain was substantially higher when a goal was scored than at other periods during the game.
“Goals being scored are a particularly strong emotional stimulus for football fans, but it also seems realistic to suggest that the emotional response could be stronger to goals that are more difficult to attain; they’re rarer and, by implication, aesthetically more pleasing — like those that hit the bar and go in.”
Phwoar, it was here. It was science. To find out what made hideous bedroomed nerds in Star Wars jammies spend their waking hours mainlining Irn-Bru while splicing together videos of goals to terrible Europop on iMovie, along with what made them so addictive for us normal people to watch, I had to first find out how the brain processed art.
When we see something beautiful—a brilliant goal, a pair of trainers, one of those lovely big dogs with a silly face—our body pumps us full of chemicals. That much I knew already. Your blood turns into a delicious cocktail of dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin—the “hug drug”—and you feel fantastic. But deeper than that, truly great art—the Sistine Chapel, say, or Big Tony Yeboah—can inspire something so much deeper.
I tried to read a study of classic art and neuroaesthetics called “Neural correlates of viewing paintings: Evidence from a quantitative meta-analysis of functional magnetic resonance imaging data” by Oshin Vartanian and Martin Skov (recently published in the medical journal Brain and Cognition) to find out why it gives everyone a steel-beam erection to see a wicked goal go in off the bar. Viewing a beautiful painting triggers responses in the regions of the brain associated with visual understanding and object recognition; turns out it also fires up those bits of the grey matter that react to emotions, inner thoughts, and learning.
In another study, students, after visiting an art museum, showed stronger critical thinking skills, had greater historical empathy, and became more socially tolerant. It works on adults too. Art makes you smarter. Art can make you a better person. I’m not saying that brilliant goals could make people not racist anymore, but I’m very close to saying almost precisely that. Short of kidnapping carp-mouthed bigot Nigel Farage and Clockwork Orange-ing him into watching hours of classic goals until he swaps casual societal evil and wellies for a little culture, I sought after the brains of smarter people.
Modern sport and the erotic are intrinsically linked, wrote Wolfgang Welsch in The Aesthetics of Everyday Life. “Today’s uncovering of the erotic element in sport, in contrast to its traditional oppression… According to the traditional disciplinary model, sport was to serve to keep bodily desires in check; its inherent erotic connotations were to be kept quiet too. Today they are allowed to come to the fore. Contemporary sport is one of the spheres where the intrinsic relationship between the aesthetic and the erotic is allowed to manifest itself.” And scientists have shown that porn—like “FFM Party Gang” or “Bang Bus” or “Le Tissier Volleys part 3”—can shut off blood to parts of the brain which process visual stimuli. You know, so it can direct more to your junk area. It’s this disconnect coupled with overstimulated amygdala—the bit that controls your emotions—that can make you make decision making so poor when you’re mad horny. It’s the kinda thing that makes blokes in movies cheat on wives they love, and it’s why something so simple, so blissfully animal—so erotique—like a ball smashing off a bar and into the net feels so fucking exciting and so oddly forbidden. Ooh, you think. That shouldn’t happen. But it did—it does. And you love it.
And then I disappear back to my own cave, like the Dorito-dusted YouTube auteurs who keep churning out crudely edited, sophomorically exciting goal compilations, to watch more. I cannot stop. That thwup-twong. That Shhhhhhhhhahhurrrghhahyeahhhhhhhurrrrrr! scream. That ball that goes in off the bar.
This originally appeared in Issue 006, which was a few years ago now and is extremely sold out. If you like what you read, you can subscribe to get MUNDIAL through your door four times a year here, or purchase our latest issue here. Crossbar and ins are good, aren’t they.