The own goal is quickly becoming the most valuable blooper of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, a highlight-worthy, cringe-inducing boo-boo that can either delight or horrify, depending on your rooting interests. It even happened in the final game.
Before getting into the hows and whys of own goals, though, a definition: In football (or soccer, if you're American), an own goal occurs when a player accidentally knocks the ball into the wrong net. The one that the other guys are shooting at. The one that these own-goal makers are supposed to be defending.
Generally speaking, if a shot is headed toward the goal, is deflected by a defender and still goes in, it's not an own goal. But if the shot is deemed to be offline — not at the goal — and is deflected into the net by a defender, that's an own goal.
The result, naturally, is a score for the other team — in international football parlance, that's known meekly as a "GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!" — and, often, some embarrassment and consternation for the offending team.
A Rash of Self-inflicted Misery
The own goal is uncommon, but it's not an outright rarity, especially in the 2018 World Cup. Twelve were scored, breaking the tournament record set in 1998. Historically speaking, in 17 World Cups held since the first one in 1930, 53 own goals have slipped past flailing goaltenders and mortified defenders. Every cup starting with that record-setter in 1998 — that is, the last six, considering the cup is held every four years — has had at least one instance of a player committing football's cardinal sin.
"Generally, when you look at the top leagues in the world, it's around 3 percent of your goals that are from own goals. That's pretty normal," says Jason Longshore, a longtime football expert who serves as the radio color analyst for Major League Soccer's Atlanta United. "So right now, at the World Cup, yeah, it's a little bit higher. It's a smaller sample size, so we'll see if it evens out over the tournament. But I feel like that number has increased over the last few years just because the game is so much faster. Players are so much faster. I think the ball itself is so much faster."
Given that, it probably shouldn't be surprising that this year's cup could shatter the record for own goals. Sixty-four high-pressure, knee-knocking games are played during the World Cup. National pride is on the line in every one. (Except, of course, for the United States. The U.S. didn't qualify for the 32-team field. Talk about embarrassing.)
That's a lot of opportunities for stubbing your toe or letting your head get in the way. Mistakes are bound to happen.
"This is the most pressure-packed event for a soccer player. This is the ultimate for any player in the world, to represent their country at a World Cup. And these players feel it," Longshore says. "We all know in sports, when you're feeling that pressure, sometimes it can cause mistakes."
Added to all that mental weight is the fact that these players are, physically, among the best in the world. Maybe the best. They are stronger, faster and more skilled than their World Cup predecessors. A misplaced foot here, a bump there, a bit of poor positioning in the latter minutes of a grueling game ... any of it can lead to a slight slip-up and an own goal. The margin for error is infinitesimal.
A Nightmare for Morocco
That was probably never more evident than in a World Cup showdown on June 15 between Morocco and Iran. The match was scoreless into stoppage time — that extra time officials add onto the end of a match to make up for slow times during regulation play (because, in football/soccer, there are no timeouts during which the clock stops) — when Morocco substitute Aziz Bouhaddouz, swarmed by an Iranian attack, dove almost parallel to the pitch, toward his own goal, trying to clear away a shot.
Instead, Bouhaddouz headed the ball in between the goalpost and his own goalie for the game-winner. Final score: Iran 1, Morocco 0.
It all happened in a split-second. Even the announcers initially credited an Iranian player for the goal. Replays showed that Bouhaddouz, trying to clear it past his own goal to restart play, simply deflected it the wrong way on his dive. Instead of hitting the top left of his head, the ball hit the top right.
Teams will often practice clearing balls away from the net, Longshore says, working especially on proper body positioning. But when game time comes ...
"You look at a defender in these situations, if they're chasing back facing the goal, they don't know what's around them. And they're feeling that pressure of, 'Maybe there's an attacker behind me. I need to try to play this away,'" Longshore explains. "And they put themselves in a bad position and sometimes that deflection can take it in on their own goal rather than clearing it away."
As devastating as an own goal can be — Bouhaddouz was weeping and being consoled by his teammates as he left the pitch — players understand that these things are part of the game. Even the beneficiaries of own goals realize it, as one Iranian showed after the Morocco match in a shining bit of international sportsmanship.
Luckily, most fans can understand that an own goal is simply part of the game. Although statistics on the causes of own goals are impossible to come by — whether a goal is declared as an own goal ultimately depends on the judgment of an official scorer — most own goals seem to be the result of fluke deflections, something unforeseen that happens in a blink, rather than careless, preventable mistakes.
Still, that doesn't make them any easier to accept, either for players or fans.
"The passion for the game is a big part of it, too. This is a game that I think the reactions to it are different than our American sports at times," Longshore says. "It is that 45 minutes, nonstop, of action. Every play kind of builds on itself. It's a frenzy at the end. You can get caught up in the passion and caught up in the emotion of it and maybe not see that hey, it's just a mistake. Hey, it's not even a mistake. It's just a fluke."