AAfter 84 minutes 39 seconds into Liverpool’s win over Crystal Palace on Sunday, Diogo Jota ran for the ball, grabbed it on the chest, kicked it wrong, put his leg in Vicente Guaita’s path and went down. Three seconds of action that Kevin Friend apparently watched 17 times before deciding to award a penalty.
Those three seconds were, of course, replayed and analyzed by Sky Sports, and by Sky Sports News, by Match Of the Day and all social media – the moment has been viewed nearly 400,000 times on Sky Sports’ Twitter just after the game. If you add up all the posts, fan pages, and every account that uploaded it to every platform, it adds up to millions of us repeatedly watching a man slip into another man and fall to the floor.
“An absolutely disgraceful decision” was the verdict of Alan Shearer. “Can you see I’m angry?” He went on. “It’s bullshit,” Glenn Hoddle said. “Absolute nonsense.” Neil Warnock added an agenda to the 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 that spend hours on this moment.
In contrast, the three preceding seconds of the match were something of utter beauty. Trent Alexander-Arnold intercepted the ball and played a striking, arrow-like pass from 50 yards into Jota’s path. It was such an exceptional skill to decide in a split second to try it, to execute the perfect technique – to just kick it so absolutely perfect.
And this highlights the absurdity of the way we consume football – and how little time we spend talking about the part where players kick the ball, which ultimately feels like a pretty important part of the whole affair. It’s far from me replacing articles about how much stoppage time Jon Moss played at the King Power or whether Craig Pawson has VAR nightmares about Ryan Fraser having the 10 best kicks of the weekend, but there’s a question about what we care about in the game and what we want from it.
And before I try to claim any moral high ground in all of this, I am equally guilty. Monday’s Football Weekly podcast kicked off with a five-minute deconstruction of Jotagate, then a throwaway mention of Alexander-Arnold’s pass before moving on to talk about the match itself. And there is clearly merit in discussing game-changing decisions, the VAR and the people behind the VAR.
Very occasionally there is a thrill of such astonishing beauty that football stops to appreciate it. Thiago Alcântara’s half volley against Porto in the Champions League – the one that shaved like a stone – was so perfect it was art. It was so utterly unfungible – hang that up and put it in a museum, download it and have John Terry pawn it as a crypto meme.
I still can’t figure out if it grazed the turf before taking off like a low-flying fighter jet. How does anyone 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 utter an involuntary scream of joy from their couch?
Of course different fans want different things, but nothing gives me more pleasure than watching Tom Huddlestone run the ball across the court with both feet as if he were blasting a five-iron down the fairway. That’s my ultimate clickbait.
And there are those who just want us to talk about football — but it turns out it’s harder to do that than pushing the buttons of perceived injustice, agendas, and outrage over a referral decision or a player’s haircut. There is no discussion about Thiago’s strike. Roy Keane and Graeme Souness cannot argue over Youssef M’Changama’s free kick for the Comoros against Cameroon, or Gabadinho Mhango’s opener for Malawi in their defeat to Morocco. They were just brilliant attacks. Once you’ve said that, what else can you add?
And (real) differences of opinion make for more interesting analyses. It’s much easier to start a debate about the need for common sense and consistency, to hold Mike Riley accountable for all the issues in the game.
I 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 it [insert whoever you support here]. And the opportunity to feel disadvantaged brings fans together. It unites us. I’m still a little annoyed that David O’Leary wasn’t ejected for taking down Cambridge’s John Taylor when he was clean in the 1991 FA Cup quarter-final at Highbury.
And in the hierarchy of things that really matter, the art of kicking a ball lags quite a bit behind the other aspects of the game that get minimal coverage compared to VAR and umpires. We don’t have the right balance when it comes to discussing the easy things, and dealing with corruption, human rights violations, racism and misogyny. It’s a depressing and growing list.
But when it comes to those easy things, when we’re analyzing a football game, whether it’s in a TV studio or in the bar, whether we’re all making editorial decisions. Which part of that game interested us the most? What are the greatest 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 love to talk about everything. I sometimes wonder if we should spend a little more time admiring how good these people are at football, because that’s where it all starts and ends.