Unless you've spent the last week caged in the kitchen of a sinister but short-sighted witch -- and if so, congratulations on your escape, and I can't believe the old chicken-bone-as-finger trick still works -- you'll be aware that last Saturday, Peter Crouch scored a goal against Manchester City that was really rather special. Our very own Calum Mechie goes into more detail about the wonder of the goal itself here, but to sum up, WOOOOBLIMEYHOWTHEFLIPPINGCROUCH?!?!?!?!11!!1!12!. (Or, if you're a City fan: [deleted] [deleted] [deleted].)
Obviously, because this was a thing that happened, nobody could quite agree how good a goal it was. Match of the Day 2 were in no doubt as to its wonder, replaying the strike approximately 117 times as Colin Murray's voice trembled all the way up to bat-bothering with each chirrup and re-chirrup of approval. On the other hand, questions were asked about Joe Hart's positioning and reactions; unfavourable comparisons -- Van Basten, Zidane, Rooney -- were conjured from Youtube; a hardcore of tiki-taka-fetishists rejected the notion that spectacular volleys even count as good. People, eh?
Tied up in any assessment of the goal's quality was, of course, the identity of the goalscorer. When Van Basten did his thing he was blessed with the unearthly advantage of simply being Marco van Basten, a state of divine being that makes mere mortals out of even those who might normally aspire to the sublime. Whereas Crouch, a professional footballer of many years at pretty close to the highest level, is arguably most famous for (a) being (i) very tall and (ii) also thin, and therefore (iii) funny-looking, for (b) once answering the question "What would you be if you weren't a footballer?" with "A virgin", and for (c) standing in the middle of a fast-food restaurant announcing, between each bite, "Crouchy's eating his nachos". This, I think, contributed to the confusion around the goal's quality: it was difficult to work out exactly how much one's amazement was down to the CROUCH? factor.
For Crouch belongs to that special subset of footballers: those that don't look like they have any business playing the game. Where athletes all look much the same, at least to my jaundiced and spiteful eye, these players -- the misfits, let's call them -- appeal because they fail to satisfy any mundane vision of Olympian perfection. They are a motley parade that tend toward the rotund, or evoke the troglodytic, that are bowlegged or gothickly pale, pigeoned of chest or toe or weirdly disproportionate of head or arse, or cursed with the gait of a man running eternally through thick winter soup, and their totem, their maypole, their long-legged daddy, is Crouch himself, a striker-as-imagined-by-Rube Goldberg.
Obviously, "misfits" sounds derogatory, and I suppose in some ways it is. But only if you take the thing into which the non-misfits fit as being the better of the two options; football, bless it, doesn't care. A goal is a goal whether scored by the acme of physical perfection or scuffed into the net by some club-footed creature from the inexplicable deep. Indeed, footballing beauty is often the preserve of the less-than-perfect, a fact that I imagine perpetually frustrates Cristiano Ronaldo, who is finding that all the stomach crunches, tanned skin and neck muscles in the world can't help you strike a ball like Matt le Tissier.
It's often suggested that part of the reason such misfits are viewed with affection -- particularly the portlier and slower ones -- is that they, in all their unorthodox glory, remind us, the misshapen spectators, of ourselves. That they are easier to empathise and identify with than the oiled and plucked and toned. There's probably some truth in that, though it does require a significant elision on the part of the viewer. After all, Peter Crouch may have a good touch for a big man -- Crouch article bingo players, that one's for you -- but he has a phenomenal touch for a human being.
But more generally, I think, players like Crouch remind us of football's fundamental meritocracy. One of the great things about sport is that you can be amazing simply by being amazing; you don't need to conform to a certain standard of appearance, or to a certain body-type, or whatever. There are exceptions, obviously, particularly when it comes to scouting for athletic archetypes and so on, but as a general principle all that matters are the goals, in the scoring or the stopping. Recall the Real Madrid executive who remarked, back in 2003: "How ugly is Ronaldinho?! There was no point buying him, it wasn't worth it. He's so ugly that he'd sink you as a brand. Between Ronaldinho and Beckham, I'd go for Beckham a hundred times. Just look how handsome Beckham is, the class he has, the image. The whole of Asia has fallen in love with us because of Beckham. Ronaldinho is too ugly". That went well. The Brazilian overcame his lack of marketing appeal by playing football quite well, winning FIFA's World Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005
Crouch, obviously, is no Ronaldinho. But his brief ascension to the ridiculously spectacular was a reminder -- a hilariously unlikely one -- that football, for all that it's corrupt and venal and broken and strange, and for all that so much of what happens outside the white lines is still dogged by discrimination, both implicit and explicit, has it its heart the principle that anybody but anybody can play. As long as they're good.