Zlat-trick opens best ever debate

ANDREW KEH

The best goals are the products of instinct: split-second improvisations through which inner genius can surface.

That was on display Wednesday in the waning minutes of a friendly match between Sweden and England, when Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedish striker, tried an audacious overhead kick and watched from his back as the ball looped into the goal from an almost unthinkable distance.

The reaction was immediate. Steven Gerrard, the captain of the English team, after the game called it the best goal he had witnessed. Twitter rattled with wonderment. Office computer screens toggled toward YouTube replays. All were astonished.

So where does this one rank among the best?

That list is rather well maintained among soccer fans. There is a somewhat firm consensus that the greatest was scored by Diego Maradona in the quarterfinal round of the 1986 World Cup. Skipping like a rock on water, he zigzagged past five England defenders, dribbling 60 yards to deliver the match-winner. Every spectacular goal has been held against this standard ever since.

When delving into this sort of discussion, it is probably helpful to break any goal down to some elemental parts. Ibrahimovic's goal was a masterpiece of body control and skill. Chasing a hopeful long ball, he slowed as goalkeeper Joe Hart wandered from the penalty area to head the ball clear. Ibrahimovic peeked quickly to his right toward the patch of grass where the ball would land.

Five steps from there and he was airborne. His back to the goal, legs gangly above his head, Ibrahimovic struck the ball with his right foot, arched his back as he fell to the ground, and saw the shot sail from 30 yards away and land inside the near post.

As a moment of sudden and pure technique, it called to mind Zinedine Zidane's goal for Real Madrid in the 2002 Champions League final, when he struck a ball that dropped from a stratospheric height out of midair with his left foot and sent it curling into the upper corner of the net. Marco Van Basten scored a stunning volley of his own for the Netherlands in the 1988 European Championship final, pummeling the ball into the net from a minuscule angle.

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