For most people, there’s a tradeoff between perfection and reality. The writer seeking perfection churns away, only to find it is within the prison of his own mind that perfection eludes him. The musician tries to score the perfect symphony, but the preference of their own ears change from beginning to end, or the notes never fit together ideally. You get the idea; reality is anathema with ideal. It is this paradox that forms the argument that sport is not art, for sport contains perfection. We rarely get to witness it, but sometimes we get to glimpse at its form. We saw it late on the night of October 11. We saw the perfect goal.
Mexico was tied 1-1 with Panama at Estadio Azteca. This was no good for Mexico, who needed to win in order to maintain a reasonable shot at qualifying for the World Cup. Mexico had been controlling the tempo of the game and held most of the chances, yet let one moment of the game slip, in which Panama managed to equalize. And then:
That’s Raúl Jiménez, who plays for América in Liga MX. You may not (probably don’t?) know who he is. That’s fine, it doesn’t matter. What matters is he scored the most important goal — both aesthetically and for his team — in the entire World Cup qualification process.
The pass came in — a solid, but ordinary pass — directly to his feet, with Jiménez’s back to the goal, just about 18 yards out. Given the haste with which he operates, it’s clear his intention all along was to do what he did, which reflects how history kindly interprets success as bravery and unjustly condemns failure as conceit. It’s easy to imagine the more likely scenario where his strike is mis-hit and the ball sails well wide or high, the crowd lets out a groan in angst, then play resumes, destined for the dreaded draw.
Instead, Jiménez popped the ball straight up into the air, and with the skill of a puppeteer controlling a foosball player controlling a foosball in ways that don’t typically get controlled, he took two steps to center himself underneath the ball — which took him further away from his target! — leapt into the air and, once his entire body was parallel to the ground, rotated only his right leg and foot such that it struck the ball — which has been falling all the while as projectiles do on this planet — so that it would beam itself directly to the lower corner of the goal. The shot was so perfectly placed the keeper remained statuesque through this entire process, which is generally not a keeper’s role. By the time Jiménez landed on his back, the ball had already crossed the goal line.
The Mexican team has demonstrated so few athletic feats during the qualifying process that, prior to the goal, they were at risk of not making the World Cup in the very forgiving CONCACAF region. They still are, technically, but things are a lot easier for them now. It had been said by many people (including me) that if Mexico couldn’t take points from a decimated U.S. team on the road or beat a weak Panamanian team at home, they didn’t deserve to make the World Cup. We wanted the Mexican team to show us something that made us feel like they belonged in Brazil.
Athletic brilliance and aesthetic glory aside, Jiménez’s greatest achievement may not have been his exotic negotiations with gravity and a soccer ball, but making us forget months of mediocre-to-atrocious play through one instance of pure and complete perfection. The perfect goal has to be perfect in the moment, but it has to transcend it, too. It has to be always perfect, as the artist knows, otherwise it’s just a fleeting thing. The perfect goal makes an entire country forget months of angst. The perfect goal proves why a team belongs with the best. The perfect goal answers all the questions, and makes you feel foolish for asking them in the first place.