The beauty of the corner

During Jose Mourinho’s first stint at Chelsea, and hence, his first time managing in England, he asked, “How many countries can you think of where a corner kick is treated with the same applause as a goal? One. It only ever happens in England.”

While we know this is not true (afterall, we MLS fans cheer for corners as well), his question does point to the oddity of our excitement about corner kicks. Over the last decade, only about 3% of corner kicks have led to goals in the top European leagues. For every 100 corner kicks, that is, we get to see about 3 goals. While that number can double for especially proficient teams, it still seems a rather odd event to get excited about as a consistent avenue for scoring. 

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Think about it this way: if we put the proportional enthusiasm into corners that we do into the awarding of a penalty kicks by proportion to the probability of a goal, our enthusiasm would be muted at best. We expect penalties to go in. Penalty takers score around 75% of the time. When our team misses one, it’s a massive bit of disappointment because we’ve already counted that goal in our head. It’s less a moment of potential than a moment of potential disappointment.

And yet, we still find the corner kick to be a cause for celebration and anticipation.

While there are a number of ways to talk statistically in defense of the excitement of corner kicks (e.g., the simple fact that teams more often score from set plays than open play is interesting), and while it’s clear that some teams emphasize corner kicks enough to statistically perform better than others, that’s not what’s exciting about them. For my money, set pieces in general, but corner kicks in specific, are exciting because they offer precise moments of possibility and potential, punctuated by a specific moment of release. For precisely this reason, it’s more of a wonder that corner kicks aren’t cheered globally.

Think about it: in open play, for the most part, we watch our teams hold form, attempt to find an open shot, take it and miss. The difference often between a run of play that leads to a goal and a run of play that does not is often minimal… a defender misses the ball, the keeper a little too far off to the left, etc.  While there are times… such beautiful times… when we get to watch and understand the build up to a goal (such are the moments when we really understand the phrase ‘the beautiful game’), numerous goals seem to come right when we weren’t expecting them. Sure, we all experience the intensity of fans the entire game, and those goals do provide us with heartfelt excitement, but these moments are different than set pieces, different than corners.

With the corner, we have time to gather together our emotions, to either prepare ourselves with fear as opponents line up for the corner or eye tastily as we dream of the ball smashing into goal off the head of one of our taller players. In short, we know, more or less, exactly what is going to happen and we are forced to sit and fidget until the ref gives the signal that it’s game on.

This is precisely why short corners—despite that fact that they are the smarter move when a team has a lead—feel so disappointing. There we are, edge of our seats, already imaging where the ball might go. Despite all the evidence that the corner will not likely lead to a goal, each time our team takes one, a part of us expects the ball to go in. At the very least, we expect a brief burst of excitement when anything can happen. With players all in the same area, going after the same ball, who knows what ricochets and odd bounces will lead to the possibility of a goal after a second or third body tries to kick it away.

As a metaphor for life, soccer always seems to be about the slim potential for success if we work hard, and everything goes right. So much can go wrong in life and in soccer, but the corner allows that moment of possibility. Here it is, we think, our chance to score. It’s not a matter of if we score or not: the excitement is about the sublime moment of possibility. Hence, the short corner disappoints, the kick that hits the first defender causes us to moan. Just put the ball where we can have that moment of hope, a moment of belief. 

I’m not disappointed when a corner doesn’t lead to a goal, that is. I’m only disappointed if my team doesn’t put it in a spot that could lead to a goal. 

While corner kicks are never the equivalent of scoring, they are a moment when we all hold our breath together, when we collectively know exactly what should or could happen. We collectively hold our breaths, we pray, and wait for release.

Of course, we applaud wildly for corners. What the hell is wrong with those who don’t?

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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