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The Best of the Worst Own Goals

John Arne Riise, supine in defeat.

John Arne Riise’s brave own goal in yesterday’s Champions League semifinal against Chelsea has a lot of people asking where it ranks on the list of the greatest own goals of all time, with Mark at Reuters even wondering whether it might be the most important own goal ever. This got me thinking: what are the most important own goals ever, and why am I not spending three hours putting together a special guide to the subject?

The perfect own goal—the Category 5 hurricane of this underappreciated art—would have three defining criteria. It would be:

Devastating: What made Riise’s own goal so special was that it came five minutes into stoppage time, long after everyone had already concluded that Liverpool would be taking a 1-0 lead to Stamford Bridge. The Liverpool fans had even started up with “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Then, with no warning, Riise headed into the net and undid the work of the entire match. The greatest own goals come late in high-stakes games and completely nullify everything that went before.

Consequential: It’s no use scoring an own goal in a match your team wins 4-1. If you want your own goal to be remembered, it has to contribute to the outcome. And the best own goals don’t just change the narrative, they become the narrative. Putting the ball into your own net to lose a hard-fought game by a single goal will always be the best path to own-goal immortality. That’s why it’s too early to say for sure where Riise’s own-goal ranks: it’s going to move up or down depending on Liverpool’s fate at Stamford Bridge next week.

Comical: The greatest scorers of own goals understand that it isn’t enough to knock the ball past their own keepers. They realize that the truly stylish own goal, the rara avis of the medium, has to be ridiculous as well. Like clowns juxtaposing the humor and sorrow of life, they slot the ball coolly into an undefended net, or execute moves that would have been brilliant if they had happened at the other end of the pitch. Extra points if the scorer of the own goal is otherwise known for scoring non-own goals, or for being a (conventionally) great player. Triple extra points if you kick the ball into the net off your own face.

These are the rules. On to the own goals.

Paul Robinson, watching a Borat ad in defeat.

Honorable Mention
Switzerland won the match 4-2 and progressed to the second round, so the own goal wasn’t consequential. And it came in the 22nd minute, so it wasn’t particularly devastating, though it did put the team down 2-0. Still, you have to imagine that scoring for Nazi Germany wasn’t what Swiss player Ernst Lörtscher had in mind when he was called up for the 1938 World Cup. Or maybe it was. Which would be so much worse.

#10. Gary Neville scores for Croatia, 2006
Devastating? Well, it came as England were trying to fight back from a 1-0 deficit against Croatia early in their Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, and put them in a 2-0 hole they couldn’t climb back out of. Consequential? Not directly, but you could at least argue that this was the goal that derailed Paul Robinson’s career, led to England’s flameout in Euro qualifying, caused the sacking of Steve McClaren, and made Slaven Bilić the hottest young coach to hit England since Gareth Southgate left the hotel sauna. Comical? Meet the Paul Robinson air kick.

#9. (Riise if Liverpool go on to win at Stamford Bridge)

#8. Tommy Boyd scores for Brazil, 1998 World Cup
A draw against Brazil in the opening game of the 1998 World Cup would have been the biggest result in Scotland’s history, and Scotland looked set to pull it off after John Collins’s penalty leveled the match. That’s why Tommy Boyd’s late, awkwardly chested own goal was such a masterpiece. It gave Brazil the 2-1 win, spoiled the underdog story, and knocked Scotland from a high they wouldn’t reach again until last year’s wins over France.

#7. Steven Gerrard scores for Chelsea, 2005 Carling Cup Final
The goal itself was nothing special, just an unlucky glancing header. But coming in the 79th minute, leveling the match after Liverpool had held the lead since the first minute, and leading to a wild extra period that saw Chelsea win 3-2, this one deserves to be remembered. That it was described as “Gerrard’s first goal for Chelsea” at the high point of the Stevie-to-Stamford Bridge transfer speculation added some needed comedy. Ironically, it was Riise who had his first-minute goal neutralized by Gerrard’s mistake, a fact that may lie somewhere in the distant, dimly lit background of a story like this.

#6. Des Walker scores for Tottenham, 1991 FA Cup Final
Four years earlier (see #5), Spurs had lost the FA Cup on a last-minute own goal. In 1991, karma made amends as Nottingham Forest’s Des Walker scored a sublime own goal at the start of extra time to give Spurs the cup. This was also the match in which Paul Gascoigne tore his cruciate ligament during a dangerous tackle on Gary Charles. It was a night when karma was on its game.

#5. Gary Mabbutt scores for Coventry, 1987 FA Cup Final
Tottenham were huge favorites in this match, which made Gary Mabbutt’s brilliant, arching goal over his own keeper’s head six minutes into extra time (goal is at 5:05 in the video) a thing of such beauty. It was even better because Mabutt not only won the match 3-2 for Coventry, but also scored the second goal for Spurs to ensure extra time in the first place. I’ve been looking without much success for a term to describe the accomplishment of a player who scores for both teams in a match. “Completing the Mabbutt” should do nicely.

#4. (Riise if Chelsea go on to the Champions League Final)

#3. Andrés Escobar scores for the United States, 1994 World Cup
I’m not evaluating this one by the criteria above, because it’s one of the most tragic goals in soccer history. A few days after accidentally scoring against his own team in the 1994 World Cup, and thus allegedly inflicting some huge gambling losses on a group of Colombian drug lords, Colombian player Escobar was shot to death. According to witnesses, the killer shouted “Goooal!” after firing each of his 12 bullets.

#2. Antoni Ramallets scores for Benfica, 1961 European Cup Final
Ramallets was one of the best goalkeepers ever to play for Barcelona, but his bobbled save of Martín Vergés’s defensive header (goal is at :52) was the difference in Benfica’s 3-2 win. The best case I know of a great player scoring a devastating own goal in a critically high-stakes match.

#1. Delfí Geli scores for Liverpool, 2001 UEFA Cup Final
But the most stunning own goal of all time has to be Delfí Geli’s otherworldly header to win the 2001 UEFA Cup for Liverpool (goal is at 4:02). Not only did it occur deep in extra time—in the 117th minute, to be exact. Not only did it put his team, Alavés, behind 5-4 after their superb fight back from 3-1 and 4-3 deficits. But it was also a Golden Goal. It literally ended the match. It single-handedly undid his team’s comeback and brought his opponents their first European trophy in 17 years. We may not live to see this one topped. Just a brilliant achievement in own-goal scoring on every conceivable level.

This is obviously a Eurocentric and England-centric list, simply because, as much as I’d love to research the history of own goals in Asian World Cup qualifiers or the KNVB Cup, I really want some lunch. What have I left out? Leave your own favorite own goals in the comments, and the best one will receive no prize at all, as befits an exercise in futility and self-defeat.

Read More:

The Best of the Worst Own Goals

by Brian Phillips · April 23, 2008

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