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In Praise of Big Footballing Moments

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Moments like Alisson’s winning header can remind us what’s so magical about this sport even if football amidst a pandemic feels to have lost its ability to enthrall.

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Alisson Becker of Liverpool is congratulated by Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Thiago Alcantara, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Fabinho after scoring the winning goal during the Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Liverpool at The Hawthorns
Alisson Becker of Liverpool is congratulated by Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Thiago Alcantara, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Fabinho after scoring the winning goal during the Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Liverpool at The Hawthorns
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

This season has not been an easy ride. Unless your team has picked up silverware (which tends to paper over for quite a few issues), you likely found football a bit different in 2020/21, and often, frankly, a slog.

These feelings come from a mix of things: fixture congestion and a lack of preseason have predictably resulted in a lot of injuries — Liverpool have come off the worst here, but they’re certainly not alone — as well as uneven form (to put it mildly).

The league winners, Manchester City, will be unable to break the 90-point mark this season, and will finish with at least five losses (and five draws) — more than any league winners since Chelsea in 2016/17. In recent years, we have become accustomed to the pursuit of perfection, and the context of 2020/21 has not allowed any team (well, other than Steven Gerrard’s Rangers) to look remotely perfect.

Compounding the general quality of football on show is the disconnect many fans feel. The absence of fans from grounds and our inability, in large stretches of the season, to watch the match with mates as we normally might takes away from the communal feel of sport.

Indeed, even if you usually would watch matches at home the empty grounds have an impact: the sport feels sterile; it lacks emotion and even the narrative that fans singing and shouting can provide. Even if we can’t be there in the ground ourselves, there’s serious value in there being 50,000 people shouting in unison to remind Mike Dean that Sadio Mané can be fouled, actually, and it’s just not the same shouting and celebrating at home on the couch (and scaring the dog).

In a set of years that have left a lot of us feeling more alienated and anxious than we had before, football felt, at the same time, like less of a let off, less of a release, less of a burst of energy in the middle of an otherwise stressful work week. Just when we all could have used it most, the sport couldn’t quite affect us the same way it did in pre-pandemic times.

But then Alisson Becker scored a world-class header in stoppage time to keep Liverpool’s top four hopes alive, and we all got a bit of a reminder of what football can do.

After the initial delirium of celebration ceased, many of us thought a lot about what that emotional release, that intense outpouring of joy, would mean for Alisson, a man who, like many of us, has had to cope with a tragic loss of a loved one without the comfort of familial mourning.

The level of emotion on display from the Liverpool players after their goalkeeper scored the winner seemed to in part be in response to the moment itself — the goal, what the goal meant for the season’s prospects — and also to that conception of something bigger.

The man himself gave a remarkable and vulnerable post-match interview, telling reporters he was “too emotional” to articulate how he was feeling properly.

“This last month for everything that has happened with me and my family, but football is my life, I played since I can remember with my father. I hope he was here to see it, I’m sure he is celebrating with God at his side.”

That these moments can be so clearly meaningful beyond the scope of sport itself speaks to the power of football.

Football has the incredible capacity to be larger than the sum of its parts. Sporting moments can be such pure vehicles for emotional release, and the narratives the sport provides us with are more than just a leisure activity.

While we hope that Alisson’s header is one massive moment that helps to secure us Champions League football next season, even before we know what happens we might want to consider why the moment itself is valuable.

It reminded me of the sport’s capacity for pure, spontaneous joy, a communal release that can bring together so many strangers in just a moment. It’s just football, but it’s so often about much more than that.