After 84 minutes and 39 seconds of Liverpool’s win at Crystal Palace on Sunday, Diogo Jota ran on to the ball, chested it, miskicked it, planted his leg into the path of Vicente Guaita and went down. Three seconds of action which Kevin Friend apparently watched 17 times before deciding to give a penalty.
Those three seconds were of course repeated and analysed by Sky Sports, and by Sky Sports News, by Match Of the Day and all over social media – the moment has been viewed almost 400,000 times on Sky Sports’ Twitter from just after the game. If you add all the posts, fan pages and every account that uploaded it to every platform, it amounts to millions of us repeatedly watching a man sliding into another man and falling on the ground.
“An absolutely disgraceful decision” was Alan Shearer’s verdict. “Can you tell I’m angry?” He continued. “It’s a nonsense,” said Glenn Hoddle. “An absolute nonsense.” Neil Warnock added an agenda to proceedings: “They get away with murder, the top clubs.” Mark Clattenburg and Keith Hackett used their national newspaper columns to talk about it. Phone-ins, YouTube channels, podcasts devoting hours to this moment.
By contrast, the three preceding seconds of the match were a thing of total beauty. Trent Alexander-Arnold intercepted the ball, and played a raking, arrow-like 50-yard pass into Jota’s path. It was such an exceptional piece of skill, to decide in a split second to attempt it, to execute the perfect technique – to just kick it so absolutely perfectly.
And this highlights the absurdity of how we consume football – and how little time we spend talking about the bit where players kick the ball, which ultimately feels like quite an important part of the whole affair. Far be it from me to suggest replacing articles about how much injury time Jon Moss played at the King Power or whether Craig Pawson has VAR nightmares about Ryan Fraser with the 10 best kicks of the weekend, but there is a question about what we value in the game and what we want from it.
And before attempting to claim any sort of moral high ground in all of this, I’m equally guilty. Monday’s Football Weekly podcast began with a five-minute deconstruction of Jotagate, then a throwaway mention of Alexander-Arnold’s pass before moving on to talking about the match itself. And there is clearly merit in discussing game-changing decisions, VAR and the humans behind the VAR.
Very occasionally there is a kick of such astounding beauty that football stops to appreciate it. Thiago Alcântara’s half-volley against Porto in the Champions League – the one that skimmed like a stone – was so perfect it was art. It was so utterly non-fungible – hang that up and put it in a musuem, download it and get John Terry to pawn it off as a crypto-meme.
I still can’t work out if it grazed the turf before taking off like a low-flying fighter jet. How does someone manage to swing their foot at an inflated round butyl rubber bladder with such effortless timing and grace that it forces someone miles away to let out an involuntary scream of joy from their sofa?
Of course different fans want different things, but nothing gives me more pleasure than watching Tom Huddlestone stroke the ball around the pitch with either foot like he’s fizzing a five-iron down the fairway. That’s my ultimate clickbait.
And there are those who just want us to talk about the football – but it turns out it’s harder to do that than to press the buttons of perceived injustice, agendas and outrage at a referring decision or a player’s haircut. There’s no debate about Thiago’s strike. Roy Keane and Graeme Souness can’t have a row about Youssef M’Changama’s free-kick for Comoros against Cameroon, or Gabadinho Mhango’s opener for Malawi in their defeat by Morocco. They were just brilliant strikes. Once you’ve said that, what more can you add?
And (genuine) disagreements make for more interesting analysis. It’s much easier to create debate about the need for common sense and consistency, to hold Mike Riley responsible for all the ills in the game.
I do wonder how many of us actually want every decision to be correct, or do we subconsciously want to feel like the world is against us? There’s a real sense that some fans are determined to find conclusive “proof” that there really is an agenda against [insert whoever you support here]. And the opportunity to feel wronged brings fans together. It unifies us. I’m still slightly annoyed that David O’Leary wasn’t sent off for pulling Cambridge’s John Taylor down when he was clean through in the 1991 FA Cup quarter-final at Highbury.
And in the hierarchy of things that actually matter, the art of kicking a ball is quite a long way behind the other aspects of the game that receive minimal coverage compared to VAR and referees. We haven’t got the balance right when it comes to discussing the easy things, and covering the corruption, human rights abuses, racism and misogyny. It’s a depressing and increasing list.
But when it comes to those easy things – whenever we analyse a football match regardless of whether it’s in a TV studio or in the pub or we’re all making editorial decisions. Which bit of that game interested us the most? What are the biggest moments? Which bits did we enjoy? What made us angry? What made us laugh? What made us cry? Every part of it is valid. I enjoy talking about all of it. I just sometimes wonder if we should spend a little more time admiring how good these people are at kicking footballs – because that is where it all starts and ends.