I hope Ruben Neves never stops scoring bangers. I hope in the last days of his career, when his knees have worn down and the cartilage within them has deteriorated to the point it hurts him to extend his legs, let alone run, when his movement on the pitch resembles that of late-stage Yaya Touré or talk-show guest Diego Maradona, that Neves retains the drive to fire long range rockets whenever he gets a bit of space and time.
In the early minutes of the second half of Wolves’ Europa League match against Espanyol, Neves once again came up with a wondrous goal. First, Adama Traore beat a defender in space down the right and sent a cross that was headed high and away by a defender to about 10 yards past the penalty arc. Neves won the battle for position, and chested the ball forward after it finally dropped from the sky.
For a second, it seemed Neves would let the ball hit the ground, and maybe try to thread a pass to one of the three teammates ahead of him. Instead, as the ball came down, he met it with the laces of his glorious right foot.
The fact he scored is one joy. The difficulty of the shot is another. The trajectory of the shot is a third, and it’s what truly elevates the beauty of the goal. Not all long-range goals are the same. Some are stunning because the ball seems to be struck so perfectly that it doesn’t even rotate in the air. There are others where the player hits the ball so intensely that it hits the net before anyone can truly react. The goals sounds as if it will rip through the back of the goal.
Neves’ was one of those beautiful goals where the ball goes upwards, as if it will go over the bar, but then halfway in its journey it suddenly dips back down towards goal. It’s the type of shot that truly tests goalkeepers’ reaction time and concentration. Neves hit the ball so powerfully the shot rolled back from the goal, so the defeated goalkeeper had to watch the evidence of his failure trickle out in front of him. It wasn’t just a great goal to watch, it was emotionally devastating. It was the type of goal that sends fans into a state of disbelief and breaks opponents’ spirits.
There are a few special players in the history of world football who have special distinction of a signature move. Arjen Robben had his habit of cutting inside and shooting; Iniesta had “La Croqueta”; Johan Cruyff, Cruyff turn; Ronaldinho, the elastico; Ricardo Quaresma, the trivela; and René Higuita, the scorpion kick.
What Neves has is breathtaking range, to the point that normal goals in the box seem like aberrations. He is so much fun to watch because when he gets the ball outside of the box, there’s always the possibility he will put the ball in the back of the net from a distance where most players fail to even hit the target.
As the game of football grows more sensible, towards eliminating tactics that are considered inefficient, it wouldn’t be shocking to see long-range shots go the way of mid-range jump shots in basketball. To see them become relics, something indefensible in the world of reason and progress.
Indeed, long-range shots are incredibly difficult and often wasteful. But they are also emotionally overwhelming in a way few other things are in soccer. Because the chances of scoring from long distances are slim, those goals are remarkable. That might not be much of a defense for their continued place in the game, but it’s the only honest one.
There might come a time when players like Neves become a thing of the past. When the mentality to try to score bangers is discouraged to the point where it is no longer seen as a normal part of the game. And maybe Neves survives this transformation simply because he’s good enough at the skill, just as some basketball players are still allowed to take mid-range jump shots.
But until soccer gets wise, we still have Neves, the patron saint of rockets. The king of stunning goals. The breaker of nets and spirits. And I hope he reigns forever.