Anatomy of an own goal: Tony Popovic - (2021)
When the pressure is at its highest, mankind is often driven to perform feats he never considered himself capable of.
This kind of single-mindedness helped Rivaldo produce a 90th-minute bicycle kick to send Barcelona into the Champions League in 2001. It inspired Gordon Banks to produce a miraculous save from Pelé’s header in 1970. It led to Luis Suárez knowing a goalline handball and only a goalline handball would keep Uruguay in the 2010 World Cup.
However, as strange as it sounds, these same instincts were what caused Crystal Palace defender Tony Popovic to produce a finish for which there is no other reasonable explanation.
Popovic was one of those mid-2000s Premier League players who only tend to crop up these days in Major League Soccer, Europa League group stage games in obscure countries, and Bournemouth. A hard worker, yes, but not one of the world’s flair players.
That’s not even suggesting he was a bad player, per se – after all, he scored for his country in a win over England – it’s just his success in the Premier League (and football League) in the 2000s was down to his broadly no-frills defending and solid leadership.
He’s exactly the sort of player you could see eventually going into management, and so it’s no surprise to see him working his way up the pyramid in his native Australia, to the point that he has been linked with the role of national team manager.
This is not the sort of person who attempts backheels, let alone blind backheels, and his strike against (okay, technically for) Portsmouth comes across like an out-of-body experience.
Our journey begins with Popovic doing a good thing.
Well, at least a nominally good thing. With Portsmouth attempting to get the ball into the box, the Aussie gets up well and gets his head to it, temporarily clearing the danger. Of course, he’d have rather got more distance on the clearance, ultimately putting him into the Adrien Gulfo trap of making things worse in an attempt to atone for his earlier play.
Steve Stone’s ball back in is dangerous in a broad sense, curling its way in the vague direction of Diomansy Kamara. However, as is so often the case, the greatest danger faced by goalkeeper Julián Speroni came from his own side.
You know the old saying, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt”? Well, in this instance Popovic let his feet do the talking. Simply put, this is the execution of a man who, after 31 years on this planet, has only just realised he has legs.
Credit to the Sydney-born defender for deciding to take his new limbs for a spin and find out what they’re capable of, but no one in full control of their faculties should even be capable of this kind of move. It’s almost an anti-flexibility kind of flexibility, the delivery of someone who learns to dance during a fever dream and wakes up with his body embedded in a bedside table.
If goals at the right end become more aesthetically satisfying for going in off the crossbar, the horrible sight of this goal creeping in off the far post is just as fitting.
In facing away from his failure throughout, he is transformed into Orpheus while the ball is Euridyce. By turning to admire his handiwork, the momentum carries the ball just inside the post in a way that a blind stab and sprint forwards would not. Sometimes we shouldn’t be so quick to knock the concept of blind faith.
The expression on Popovic’s face as he walks away isn’t one of disgust, or even one of confusion, and this leaves us wondering just one thing: it is possible that, despite everything we have been led to believe about football, the body and the human condition, he has actually done something like this before?
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