These thoughts occurred in the aftermath of Manchester United's match in Graz the other night. Roy Keane, to my eyes, scored a truly outstanding goal. The ball having rebounded haphazardly from a defensive wall, he brought it under control, nimbly adjusted his body-shape, drew back his right foot and fired from about 25 yards. Matching Wasim Akram in his prime for reverse-swing, Keane's delivery clipped the bails and flattened the middle-stump, leaving the poor goalkeeper groping helplessly down the wrong line.
In the context of the moment, wasn't Keane's goal "perfect"? Apparently not. Because the goalkeeper might have made a better stab at saving it, the excellence of the strike seems to be diluted. Never mind that he was simply flummoxed by the speed and swerve of the goal-bound missile. The implication here is that, in order to achieve sporting "perfection," one has to excel against opponents who, themselves, are also excelling. Anything less waters it down.
Think of the sporting memories upon which this has an impact. When Ryan Giggs set off from Villa Park's halfway line in last season's FA Cup semi- final replay, he was embarking on a run which had us scurrying away to recall the top 10 goals of all time. After a thousand killjoys had had their say, Giggs' wizardry had been reduced to a regulation dribbling drill. Patrick Vieira had given him the ball too easily. What happened to Tony Adams' tackle? Couldn't David Seaman have cut down the angle? So many couldn't find it within themselves simply to admit that the whole thing was superb.
That goal, of course, was compared with Diego Maradona's second against England at the 1986 World Cup. A candidate for perfect football surely? But, no. England's heart had been punctured by the hand-ball goal which preceded it... and anyone, some suggested with inaccurate and inelegant cruelty, could run away from Peter Reid. When Barry Davies told us: "You have to say that's magnificent," he was right. But, as ever, there were mitigating factors to deny it "perfect" status.
Even when the two greatest exponents of their trade are in juxtaposition, they somehow seem to pull up short of the absolute. 7 June 1970, Guadalajara: Jairzinho digs out a cross from the England byline; Pele heads firmly downward; Gordon Banks plunges to produce "the greatest save of all time". Perfect goalkeeping? But why didn't Pele head back across goal into the other corner? Should Banks have cut out the cross?
Naturally, all of this applies to other sports as well, even those in which perfection is apparently calculable. Stephen Hendry rattles in another 147... but only because his opponent left an opening and the reds were invitingly spread. Countless self-effacing golfers tell of the "lucky" bounce or the freak gust of wind which afforded them their hole-in-one. Shoaib Akthar can come up with the quickest inswinging yorker in the history of cricket, but it still needs the batsman to play all round it. Remember the Montreal Olympics and Nadia Comaneci? She was deemed perfect, wasn't she? But only by a row of imperfect human judges.
The truth is that we're never totally satisfied because we never want to be. There's a nagging suspicion that, once we admit that someone has "cracked it", there'll be nothing left to play for.
And so back to Manchester United, a club whose perfect moment seemed to have arrived in Barcelona in May. The setting was ideal; the opponents were of the highest class (and, more perfect still, German); there was not one extraneous condition that weighed in their favour. They won the European Cup in the most dramatic circumstances imaginable and completed an unprecedented treble. Yet, even as they galloped light-headedly round the pitch it began to dawn on our mealy-mouthed people that they weren't perfect at all. Because Bayern had led for most of the contest and had hit a couple of posts, United were lucky. Never mind that, long before the match, the rules had been established - the match would be 90 minutes (plus stoppage time) in duration and the goal would measure eight yards by eight feet.
Roy Keane, of course, didn't play in the European Cup final. For that reason, his memory of it presumably falls short of perfect anyway. As he contributes fulsomely to another continental campaign, some advice: Before shooting, Roy, look up, check that the goalkeeper is world-class and ideally positioned to save and, only then, crack the ball unreachably past him. Then and only then, your effort may be considered... quite good.
Peter Drury is an ITV sports commentatorReuse content