My Favourite Soccer Highlight: Paul Peschisolido, 2003, and the Aesthetics of Joy

The higher-ups at SB Nation posed us in the soccer world a simple question earlier this week: what is your favourite sports highlight? As you'll see from the branding splattered all over this page, this is an advertising campaign by Samsung to flog televisions. Interest declared. But it's also a question which would be worth a minute of my time even if they weren't paying for it.

I cheer for a team which has, by my count, been around for 1986. But something like 95% of their games were either never on television or broadcast on some local cable channel with the only copies being old Betamax tapes kept in Greg Kerfoot's private vault. Besides, I personally have only supported the Whitecaps since halfway through 2009. I'm not the man to bang away in the Vancouver video archives for moments of sublime Whitecaps glory.

So a highlight of a great goal, like Eric Hassli's or Ridge Mobulu's? I thought about it (particularly that Mobulu one since I bet many of you haven't seen it before), but that seems a little pat, a little recent, a little easy. They were both goals in important regular season games but they didn't lead to anything and the team was a disappointment both years. Bluntly, they were pretty but not significant. "My favourite sports highlight" needs something more than that.

Then I thought about hockey, specifically my actual favourite sports highlight when Curtis Joseph robbed Joe Nieuwendyk with the greatest save in Oilers history, then Todd Marchant turned the puck up the ice for the Edmonton Oilers in the 1997 Stanley Cup playoffs against Dallas. But that would have been sticking it to you guys a little too hard. This does at least pretend to be a soccer blog.

I had to pick a Canadian. I look to the national team, possibly; the 2000 Gold Cup and Richard Hastings scoring The Golden Goal (for there is only one) against Mexico on a beautiful assist from legendary Whitecap Martin Nash. Holy shit, did I stare at that one for a long time. Watch that highlight, please, and watch it again. But there are vuvuzelas in the background so I couldn't dare put it on the front page of my website, and should I be immortalizing a clip in this context out of pure emotion rather than because of the beauty or charm of the clip itself?

So the clip you see linked at the top of this page here: the 2003 English First Division playoff semi-final between Sheffield United and Nottingham Forest. Extra time, Bramall Lane, and the fighting pride of Scarborough, Ontario Paul Peschisolido has come into the game in the 105th minute with the aggregate score tied 3-3. That clip starts at 111'. It speaks for itself.

Now, let me be explicit. I am not a Blades fan. I am normally what you would call the opposite of a Blades fan. And I couldn't support Sheffield out of pure nationalism in 2003 because Jim Brennan was playing for Forest! I do, however, love Paul Peschisolido; one of my favourite all-time Canadian players. And no small part of the reason I love him is because of this clip.

Let me repeat what I said above the jump. This is a do-or-die game for his team and Peschisolido has come in at the one hundred and fifth minute with the score level. Imagine the mindset for a striker getting into that game at that time before his home crowd. I don't care what you want to say about how, in the moment, you're not really thinking about the pressure and it doesn't weigh down on an elite athlete: I can guarantee Peschisolido was thinking about it.

How can I guarantee it? Because look at Peschisolido after he puts the ball in the net. Tearing off his shirt, sprinting nowhere in particular. Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god! Some people celebrate big goals by dancing with the corner flag, or showing off sponsors on their underwear, or tearing off their shirt while they have another shirt on beneath it. Pesch opted for the rawest, most perfect display of distilled joy ever captured by a video camera. If you have the smallest soft spot in your heart and you weren't moved by Pesch's fantastic celebration, then you must be a Nottingham Forest fan.

It's my favourite part of the clip. I'm not some grumpy old bastard: I enjoy pre-planned and choreographed goal celebrations. I think the rules handing out yellow cards for celebrations that cross some invisible line but don't delay the game are stupid. All you strikers who want to do some elabourate routine because you're so great, I'll totally go along with that (as long as you don't sign the cheque). However, it's still beautiful to see a celebration that is memorable not because the scorer wanted people to remember it but because the scorer is just so happy. Peschisolido is so completely overjoyed that it almost explodes from him. He looks like a fat 12-year-old who managed to scuff one over the line in a youth league. He just can't believe something like that would happen to him, and seeing such honest, unvarnished ecstasy, not at all concerned with looking cool and entirely concerned with did that just fucking happen?!, from an accomplished professional striker is almost a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Then there's the goal itself. It's an old-school First Division strike. Peschisolido's touch is a little heavy but luckily the defenders are cement-footed. You'd have a hard time burying a goal in Major League Soccer these days with tricks like that, let alone the English Championship.

But watch. A long kick from the keeper, adroitly handled by Pesch in space. The right fullback gives him too much room. At this point Paul probably hasn't even found his legs yet; he cuts out a bit to receive the ball then tries to turn it back in towards the field. Then he realizes just how much space that fullback has given him, cutting more sharply towards goal. The fullback tracks him, catches up, then loses out entirely as Peschisolido cuts back the other way. Pyloned. Here's Pesch dribbling into the box. One of the centre backs has a pretty good position; a midfielder is charging back like a demon from hell to try and end what's suddenly become a scoring chance. Look at Paul move. He's a bit ungainly, a bit wobbly, you'd never show this video to your twelve-year-old, but the ball keeps going where he wants it to go.

A quick hold up and Peschisolido turns back inside. There are now two defenders in front of him but they're in no position to stop him from shooting, which he does off his right foot. A spectacular power blast, the striker trying to announce his presence with authority? Nah. He hits the ball where it has to go and with just enough power to make sure it gets there. And off comes the shirt. It's a hilarious clip, in its way; awkward motion, Peschisolido screaming and looking vaguely out of shape. But it's also a brilliant goal at the most crucial possible moment on a long, excellent individual play on which Peschisolido does not once make the wrong decision or an even slightly incorrect move.

Charmingly, this goal would not stand up as the winner. Sheffield and Nottingham Forest traded own goals in the dying minutes of stoppage time to give the Blades a 4-3 win (5-4 on aggregate) and a place in the playoff final. Sheffield went down ignominiously to Wolverhampton 3-0 at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff; so much for miracles. But it still doesn't diminish that moment of heroism, a moment that they'll be talking about at Bramall long after we are all forgotten. Bravo, Paul Peschisolido.

Of course, that's my opinion. I'm naturally curious about yours (not too many Sheffield supporters in the audience, I reckon). Post your take in the comments and I will mock you for being wrong.

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