In life you have to have goals. And vice versa. So Diego Maradona kissed an Argentine teammate full on the mouth after one memorable goal. After another, Lee Sharpe of Manchester United uprooted a corner flag, held it like a microphone and impersonated Elvis Presley. Then there was Finidi George of Nigeria. After scoring in the 1994 World Cup, George crawled to a corner, raised a hind leg and pretended to use the corner flag as a dog does a fire hydrant. Several teammates then deliriously did the same. And why not? Soccer's international governing body has a rule against "excessive celebration." It says nothing of excessive urination.
Indeed, one measure of how precious goals are in soccer is that none of the aforementioned acts was deemed excessively celebratory. On the contrary: Goals are so diabolically difficult to come by, so delirium-inducing when they occur, that the only reasonable response to one is pandemonium. "You forget that people are watching you," says Eric Wynalda, the all-time leading scorer for the U.S. national team. "You're just so happy, you don't care. It's like winning the lottery."
He hardly exaggerates. In the last World Cup only 2.71 goals were scored per game, an increase of half a goal per game over the '90 Cup average. The five-week tournament that began this week promises to be similarly stingy. So when the improbable does happen, when a magical goal is conjured from the ether, can a player be faulted for doing backflips?
He can if that player is Celestine Babayaro, a defenseman for the London club Chelsea who twice injured himself last season while performing Ozzie Smith-style goal celebrations. Management has barred Babayaro from flipping out again, which is a pity because the celebrations that follow goals are the wittiest, giddiest, most laughable, ludicrous, life-affirming acts in all of sport. The great Argentine striker Gabriel Batistuta once said, Goals are like bread. I need them to live.
This would explain why players react to all goals, great and small, with die kind of hysteria common to people whose names have just been called on The Price Is Right. Brazilian forward Juary would samba around the corner flag after scoring. A striker in the Argentine league likes to hold up an imaginary Instamatic and take a snapshot of the dejected keeper in his moment of misery. Following their final goal in a 3-1 defeat of West Germany in the '82 World Cup final, several players for Italy performed what one reporter referred to as a group sex act, which is better left undescribed. Suffice to say that it was a very icky shuffle, a memorable celebration.
Many more are in store throughout France over the next five weeks. Babayaro, the flipper, and George, who has feigned incontinence on three continents, will suit up for Nigeria in the World Cup, and one cannot begin to fathom what bombastic, gymnastic goal commemorations this demented duo might concoct.
For now, we can only give thanks that such men exist. They are the products of countries infinitely more festive than the U.S. is. Soccer is the sport of cultures that require two exclamation points, so that the word ¡GOL! actually looks like a goal, with a round object centered between two posts. Indeed, three exclamation points—¡!¡—resemble sequential photographs of a man performing a full, flying, forward somersault. That's what Antonio Mohammed of Argentina often does after he scores in the Mexican league.
There are few moments in American football when a man is moved to tear off his clothes. But for years players in the Spanish and the Italian football leagues have celebrated goals by removing their shirts and waving them around like flags. "I saw a Newcastle player go crazy once," says U.S. keeper Kasey Keller, who also plays for Leicester City in England. "He just went nuts. Started taking off his clothes and—I don't really understand it—kicking stuff and kicking people. It was odd. He took his shirt off, his shoes off. I don't know what he was doing. Going berserk."
Giuseppe Meazza of Italy memorably combined these feats—scoring and stripping—in the '38 World Cup, when he kicked what proved to be the winning penalty shot against Brazil while his pants were falling off. How appropriate, for no other sport is as nakedly emotional as soccer. Consider this story, then, a celebration of celebrations. Gentlemen, our hats are off to you. To say nothing of our pants.
Any list of the great goal scorers in the world must begin with Oliver Bierhoff of Germany, Predrag Mijatovic of Yugoslavia, Ronaldo and Romário of Brazil, and Alan Shearer of England. Outwardly, the men have little in common. Romário, who has a torn hamstring and cannot compete in the World Cup, is a self-described alley cat who was "born to disco dance," while the chairman of the English club Newcastle has called Shearer, his star striker, "boring." Yet what Shearer shares with Romário is an utter inability to hide his aprés-goal glee. After scoring, the emotions of both men spring out like coiled snakes from a novelty canister. The absence of goals has a similar effect. Shearer had two violent outbursts in Newcastle losses this spring but generally goals cause him to beam and sprint away from teammates. "It's the moment and something takes over," explains U.S. defender Alexi Lalas. "You feel so good, you've got to run."