Last week one of my Twitter followers replied in this way to one of my soccer tweets: “Why do you like soccer? Sports need to have a balance btw offense and defense. Soccer fails the test.”

Well, we’ve heard that one before. I didn’t reply, but if I had I would have said (of course) that he was failing to make the necessary distinction between offense and scoring. It’s a distinction that obtains in certain other sports — American football teams can run up a lot of yardage without scoring many points, and we’ve all seen baseball teams get thirteen hits and one run — but the distinction is fundamental only in soccer. 

Consider this video: one of the most famous and celebrated moments of offensive genius in the history of soccer, which ends with a shot dragged wide of an open goal. It’s impossible to imagine a failed play having this kind of stature in any other sport. 

But of course, it’s only a “failed play” according to the logic that equates offense and scoring. In the subtler accounting of soccer, Pelé’s split-millisecond decision, in one of the most heated of all possible heated moments, to let a rolling ball go right in front of his legs and past an onrushing keeper … it’s just brilliant beyond belief. And it even has its own diagram on Wikipedia.

Let’s re-set the scene. Estadio Jalisco, Guadalajara, Mexico; the semifinals of World Cup 1970. First, an utterly perfect pass from Tostão, curling slightly towards the streaking Pelé, creates a threefold convergence: the ball, Pelé, the Uruguayan keeper Mazurkiewicz. Pelé gets there just before Mazurkiewicz, who goes to ground, trying to make himself horizontally big to stop the cannonball of a shot he knows is coming. We’re all watching, we’re all doing the calculus — because calculus is what’s called for here, this is why Newton and Leibnitz invented it, to account for multiple bodies moving complicatedly in relation to one another — we’re wondering whether Pelé is going to get the shot off and whether he’ll try to chip it or blast it or take one touch to get around the prostrate Mazurkiewicz before clipping it into the back of the net … except, see, Pelé is better at calculus than anyone else and lets the ball just roll peacefully past the keeper. In an interview years later, he said“The dummy was a moment, just something you do. You can’t plan it, it happens, it’s a reaction.” But it was more than reaction: it was a high-speed feat of mathematical calculation, done while at a full sprint with a large black-clad body flinging itself at the calculator’s legs.

The calculator then has to make a sharp turn to fetch the ball, which he does. Mazurkiewicz’s part in the tale is over, but a lone Uruguayan defender has hustled back and gotten to the near post. The goal really is open, but not as open as it looks because of that defender’s intelligent placement of himself and the shallow angle Pelé now has to work with — it wasn’t a sitter by any means. But this is Pelé: he should have made it.

However, he missed. And the really wonderful and amazing thing is: it doesn’t matter. Yes, everyone says that it would have been the greatest goal ever if he had made it, but instead, it’s the greatest play ever. The most perfect embodiment of offensive footballing intelligence ever. Scoring doesn’t enter into it, really. The goal, made or missed, is but a coda to the real story here, which is in so many ways a story that simply defines what it is we love when we love soccer.

Alan Jacobs