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Soccer is a sport of waiting for the payoff. The game is mostly gridlock and tension. Two teams pushing on each other. Usually, goals don’t come until a series of passes rock the opponent out of position, then the attacking team must prove they have the skill to capitalize. 


As we know, a whole game may pass and this won’t happen. Open play can bring us to the edge of breaking the gridlock, to the moment a goal is likely to be scored, and then dangle us there. We clench in a moment of anticipation as we wait for the attacker to take the last strike. 


Depending on the outcome and which side we’re on, we experience relief, disappointment, or joy. The scarcity of scoring amplifies the emotion and builds the tension, so when a team is poised to score, everyone invested goes on high alert. This sounds obvious at first, but it doesn’t work the same in all sports. Consider basketball, where points come in such flurries that tension comes with the two teams racing to the top, not with each shot.


The pressure to score also increases as the ball gets closer to the goal, and weighs on attackers at a time when they need to be as precise and quick as ever. The attacking team might make twenty perfect touches, write a symphony all the way down the field, but if the last strike isn’t sound, there’s no payoff. 

Defenders are obviously the foil. They may be helpless against the attacking team’s perfect build-up, but all they have to do is defend the goal. Attackers can skin everyone from midfield to the box, but just one scrappy defender has to lunge in front of the ball, and the attack is for naught.  


It’s bend but don’t break, sometimes to the very last man. It’s best when even the goalkeeper is beaten, the goal is open, and everyone is on edge to see if gratification will come, or if the finishing touch will be negated by the defending team’s last player back, an instant hero if he can knock the ball clear of the line. 


Brazilian-born, Real Madrid-owned, Marcelo Vieira was twice that instant hero in a Madrid game a few weeks back. It was a Champion’s League Quarterfinal against Bayern Munich. Madrid entered the second leg with a 2-1 lead, but Bayern’s flowing attack, still showing Pep Guardiola’s instincts, could burn through any defensive wall the Spanish club could set up. That didn’t mean Bayern would score though. 


Bayern attacked early. By the 9th minute, they were working the ball down the left sideline with Franck Ribéry and David Alaba. The two Bayern players were met by two Madrid defenders, but they got the ball to the endline, split the defenders, and Ribéry was into the box. While the defense behind him burned, he looked to cross. He sent the ball in perfectly to his wide-open teammate, Thiago Alcántara, who, after a wonderful build-up, needed only to batter the ball in to score.

That’s Marcelo keeping it out. The Brazilian’s last-ditch slide cancelled out all that good work. The Bayern players threw their hands up and covered their faces. Bayern fans slapped their seats and walked off the cusp of joy. The energy and primacy in their disappointment spoke for the tension. Marcelo showed: an offense has to get it right many times to succeed, a defense just needs to get it right once. 


The first half ended 0-0, Madrid still leading on aggregate. The second started with Bayern’s Chilean bull, Arturo Vidal, running down and stomping a Madrid player, earning his first of two yellow cards that game. The referee took a few moments to get the first one out. The Madrid player rolled on the ground. Ribéry came to Vidal’s defense.


Ribéry: He’s pretending! Get up, you baby. You’re fine.

Marcelo: Franck, we all need a moment sometimes, remember?

Bayern wanted to start the second half just as they’d started the game: determining the pace, moving the ball quickly, and finding pockets of space in the gridlock. While that might assure you a win in time of possession, it doesn’t always translate to winning the game. 


In the 50th minute, Bayern began an attack from a goal kick that pressed Madrid back for about 35 seconds. While this might not seem like a lot of time, to spend it being condescend into a smaller and smaller space has a claustrophobic effect. Bayern was switching the point of attack from one side of the field to the other, pressing forward when the ball switched, looking to flank the defense or penetrate them. Finally, Madrid huddled in tight rows across the top of their box, fending off the Bayern wings that kept trying to buzz through. The longer the attack lasted, the greater the pressure built, and the more precarious the dual grew until finally Ribéry and Alaba broke through on the left side again. This time, it was Alaba who played the ball across, right in front of the goal, and it was Arjen Robben open at the penalty spot, poised to strike. As Alaba’s pass slowly rolled to Robben and everyone could see he’d have an open shot, the anticipation of a payoff made the announcer shout Robben’s name, made Bayern fans grab each other and “Ooo. Ooo,” Madridistas suck in, say, “No. No,” and Marcelo to run to his goal to protect it.    


The pass was just behind Robben, only a fraction off, but to score even the decimals have to be right. Robben had to reach back and punch his foot at it. The ball popped up into an off-speed chip, which was perfect for beating the Madrid goalkeeper, who had expected a low drive and already dove, but the shot lacked zip. Marcelo, Madrid’s angel, got to the line.  

I love Robben leaning in and staring, his teeth clenched, his attempt at telepathy. Marcelo’s clearance is an easy header in the end. Robben raises his hand to plead, but only gets laughs from the crowd. 


When you consider the narrative — an entire team is beaten except for one person, and that one person can resuscitate everyone — it’s the hero’s story. It’s Hercules. It’s Superman. One person can save us all.


Madrid’s attackers don’t have any problems with shots that lack zip. 

They crush balls into the back of the net. 

Ronaldo finished Bayern off that day with a hat-trick. His third goal was a Marcelo creation, so the Brazilian doesn’t just take away goals, he makes them. If you do the math you see Marcelo took away two from Bayern and made one for Madrid, giving his team a three goal differential. Just another day for a superhero.  






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