Tragedy has surrounded us so much over the last few weeks. From far-flung reaches of our world plunged into dusty catastrophe to that very same war bringing massacre to our own streets in Europe, the prevailing sentiment seems to have turned from anger into confusion: just what the hell is going on?
Football is so central to our society, literally all over the world people love the game more fanatically than anything else; the beauty of the game isn’t its inherent greatness or its ability to captivate, but its ability to create an outlet for both the best and the worst aspects of our humanity without harming anyone.
But football has also somehow found itself at the centre of all the recent tragedy: the Paris terror attacks at the Stade de France, the attack at an Iraqi football game that killed dozens of people, and the outpouring of emotion felt at England’s game against France in November or Portugal’s against Belgium last week.
All of the more recent weight was placed on football’s shoulders as it was, itself, trying to deal of the death of Johan Cruyff. A death that shook the game, partly because of his status in football because of the impact he made during his life, but also because it was so untimely, a passing of a legend for which we were so thoroughly unprepared.
But when something beautiful ends, it is better to smile because it happened than to cry because it’s gone. And the career of Luc Nilis seems to encapsulate so perfectly the last few weeks in football.
Nilis was the Belgian player of his generation. There used to be an old – and very boring – game where someone would ask you to name 10 famous Belgians. Before the current footballing golden generation that was a hard ask, for people in the English-speaking world at least. That list would usually have included Nilis before the likes of Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne became household names. But Belgium’s golden generation would still, i’m sure, have space for Nilis.
Yet English football didn’t see very much of one of the greats of the Belgian game. After shining at Anderlecht and PSV Eindhoven, Nilis moved to Aston Villa before the start of the 2000/01 season. He won two Dutch Eredivisie titles with PSV and finished as top scorer two years in a row as well as winning, aptly for the moment, the Johan Cruyff trophy – Holland’s Community Shield equivalent.
So he came to England with a fairly big reputation, at least in the Benelux countries, and announced himself to English football straight away with a vintage goal. A goal of such quality that it doesn’t matter what happened next, we should just be happy that that goal happened at all.
Villa faced Chelsea, the team that had beaten them in the FA Cup final only a few months earlier, and this was only the second game of the next season.
But early on in the game, Nilis showed that he made John Gregory’s Villa stronger.
As the ball is rolled into the box from the Villa left, Nilis darts in front of the great Frank Leboeuf – part of the France side that had just won the European Championships to add to the World Cup they were already holding – leaving him lying on the ground as Nilis flicks the ball into the air with his right foot. And then time stands still. Time is no longer a factor, because Nilis’s flick has created enough space that no one can touch him now. He is invincible in that moment, and all that’s left is to simply wait for the ball to complete its downward arc, straight onto Nilis’s left foot, which rifles the ball past Carlo Cudicini into the far top corner of the net.
Just after the goal, Andy Gray says in commentary, ‘Nilis announces himself to the Villa faithful, what a way to do it.’ Announce himself he did, but that’s all he got to do – tragedy was just around the corner.
Only a fortnight or so later, after playing only a handful of games for Villa, Nilis clashed horrifically with Ipswich Town goalkeeper Richard Wright. The Belgian broke his leg with a terrifying bang, his shin wrapped around Wright’s leg.
The injury was so bad that Nilis was told he was going to have to have his lower leg amputated, luckily he was spared that disaster. But just as quickly as happiness and joy was spread with his goal against Chelsea, his career was ended in one sickening incident.
‘It was the worst moment of my life to be told I might have to lose part of my leg – that will live with me forever,’ he said afterwards. ‘It was such a bad break that it led to complications – and it was nearly a disaster. I cried when I was told.’
Football is only a game, but sometimes it goes beyond that. The last few months have proved that to us. But without darkness, it’s impossible to appreciate the light, without the bad there would be no good, there would just be a constant, perfectly plateaued level of ‘stuff’, long and boring ‘stuff’.
And so looking back at the career of someone like Nilis, you automatically want to feel a bit sad. Such incredible talent lost to a freak injury, and everything that comes with it: the sadness he must have felt at ending his career like that, the sense of loss, the depression and even the physical pain of trying to rehabilitate himself and learn to walk again.
But that’s why this goal is such a golden one. Because the catastrophic scale of the darkness is juxtaposed so jarringly with the light of a goal like this. The depth is so low that it makes the high of the goal that much more majestic, and the fact that he did it so elegantly against Villa’s FA Cup final nemesis, and a World Cup winning central defensive partnership of Leboeuf and Marcel Desailly, makes it all the more special.
That’s why we remember goals like this one – we don’t need to remember the darkness when we can bask in the light.