Of all the crummy jobs in sports, the crummiest is being part of what soccer teams call "the wall."
"The wall" is made up of long-faced laddies who stand side by side in an attempt to block a free shot with whatever part of the body gets in the way. Maybe six or seven yards from the ball, these unfortunate souls stand there firing-squad style and face a man who gets a running start so he can kick the ball maybe 60 miles an hour right at them.
Soccer players, you should know, work in their underwear, not in the 16 tons of elephant skin that protect hockey and football guys. So until Hanes comes out with bulletproof briefs, a soccer player's presence in "the wall" may decide the ultimate size of his family. If G. Gordon Liddy wants to impress us, he can put away his cigarette lghter. Stand in "the wall," Gordon.
The man making the free kick has three options generally: (1) He can kick the ball straight at "the wall," hoping that someone moves out of the way (someone often does, not out of anxiety but to cover another area). Or (2) the kicker can loft the ball over the trembling fellows and toward the net. Or (3) as Johan Cruyff did Sunday, he can kick the ball past the end of "the wall" and make it curve back into the goal.
More precisely, as Johan Cruyff almost did.
What we're getting to here today (thought you'd never ask) is the absolutely astonishing things these Diplomats can do when kicking that little leather ball, 27 inches around and inflated to 12 pounds per square inch.
From reading the papers or seeing a goal replayed on television, you would think it was a simple thing. The guy kicked the ball. It went past the goalkeeper. Nothing special.
Nothing special, indeed. If you believe that, you'll believe Sandy Koufax couldn't make a baseball curve and Ken Stabler can't get a football to fly with its nose up.
Kicked by a pro, a soccer ball can curve left or right, it can do a dipsy-doodle roller-coaster thing up and down, it can wobble inflight like a Phil Niekro knuckleball and, to hear stories, it can slow down and signal for a right-hand turn if Johan Cruyff applies his shoelaces to it just so.
That's what Cruff was trying to do Sunday against the Dallas "wall."
Cruyff, perhaps the best soccer player in America, had discarded options (1) and (2). He figured the goalkeeper would try to outfox him and slip behind the wall to knock away a lob shot. Cruyff intended to curve the ball around the wall and into the vacancy left by the keeper.
But the shot went eight yards wide of the net.The curve. Dressing after the Diplomats' 4-2 victory, Cruyff sheepishly said, "If it doesn't get the curve, it looks a fool shot. It must be struck just so, right here . . ."
Cruyff pointed to a spot on his naked arch perhaps 1/16th of an inch left of that big blood vein down there.
". . . or else, the risk of trying the curve fails." Joe Horvath and Alan Green of the Diplomats succeeded with stunning shots that gave the lie to anyone's idea that this soccer is kind of like kicking a beach ball around at the famly picnic.
Horvath may be the strongest kicker on the team. At 6-foot-2 he is a lanky, narrow-shouldered midfielder who requires a long backswing before he delivers a shot that moves Coach Gordon Bradley to say, "Here comes the pile driver."
Racing down the left side with the ball Sunday, Horvath wound up to kick from 30 yards out. He intended to kick the ball to the center of the field, there to be picked up by a teammate.
Instead of striking the ball with the instep of his left foot -- right down there below that big vein -- Horvath miscalculated a bit and struck the ball with the outside of his foot.
The ball was meant to curve to Horvath's right (a hook, as we golfers would call it).
It curved to the left, a big banana slice that left the Dalls goalkeeper hopelessly transifxed as the ball went into the goal.
"Lucky shot," Horvath said.
It was lucky only in that it bent left instead of right. It certainly needed no luck to speed past the goalkeeper, for it was struck with the power necessary to move. it, in Bradley's estimation, at 60 or 65 miles per hour.
Alan Green's goal might have been lucky, too. It was luck of the branch Rickey variety, being the residue of design.
On the move with the ball down the right side, Green, a 5-foot-7 forward, used his short and quick backswing to kick the ball from 25 yards away.
He kicked it powerfully. So powerfully and so perfectly in the middle that the ball, on its way to the goalkeeper, stopped spinning. It was a knuckleball then. And as the goalkeeper lunged to his right, the bobbing and weaving ball suddenly darted up to the left and into the corner of the net.
"I just hit it as hard as I could," Green said. "It was nice what it did, but I didn't mean to do that."
Of course, no one plans for a shot to do such confounding magic. But he does hit the ball as hard as he can, knowing that something might happen. Perhaps, in the words of the Diplomat goalkeeper, Bill Irwin, "The keeper might be at sea, mate."
If the keeper is at sea, mate, then the ball will sail in uncontested.
Someone asked Irwin if goalkeepers had a name for the kind of knuckelball shots that dip and dart. You'd have thought Bill, ol' mate, had been asked to choose his favorite terminal disease.
"It doesn't have a name," the keeper said grimly, "but I don't like it."