I have a theory about mistakes in top-level team sports: they cause other mistakes. Not in the sense that an error means your teammates have to launch into desperate attempts to cover for you, raising the potential for future screwups, which, while true, would make for a pretty boring theory. But I think elite professional athletes get just as surprised as the rest of us when they witness some colossal error in a game they’re all paid to be very good at, and that surprise can sometimes throw them off entirely.
It is much harder to react to surprises than to something you already have a mental model of, especially when you only have a split-second to react to said surprise. In soccer, you see this most often on crosses — a defender misjudges the flight, misses their clearance, the ball runs free to the striker and they contort like a terrified armadillo and head the ball out for a throw-in. Expecting a cross to be dealt with makes it harder to do your job when it isn’t.
Anyway I would like to thank Real Madrid’s Vinícius Júnior for illustrating this concept in perhaps the most hilarious way possible. Observe!
Until the crucial moment, Vinícius does everything right. Sevilla’s defense was under pressure, but Diego Carlos managed to nod it back to their goalkeeper and putative safety. Real’s forwards are supposed to continue that pressure and, perhaps, force a mistake. Since all Yassine Bounou had to do was catch a gently looping header, this probably looked like a forlorn hope, but one has to hustle. It’s good form.
So, yeah. Good work Vinícius. He stayed professional, spooked the goalkeeper, and the hoped-for error duly arrived. But Bounou contrives to make a mistake so fiendishly egregious that Vinícius can’t actually exploit it. Instead, he too joins the merry festival of incompetence on the Sevilla goalline, somehow looking even worse than the goalkeeper who essentially drops the ball on his foot six inches from the yet. While fear isn’t strictly speaking involved, I think we have to consider the kind of aimless thrashing we’re seeing here as a subspecies of panic.
The result is magnificent. Each of these men had what should have been an entirely trivial job; both make absolutely transcendent errors. While I’m not about to put numerical odds on either moment, one would have to assume the likelihood of either making a mistake this egregious is miniscule. That they both did so within a second of one another takes it to what, nanoscule? femtoscule? Those aren’t real words, but I don’t think language can adequately express the absurdity of this moment anyway, so, whatever.
At any rate I think the only sensible explanation for this sequence of events is that Bounou’s misjudgment actually caused Vinícius’. It was so far outside any model of the world he’d planned for that he simply couldn’t adjust in the short time he had available, and his sheer surprise led to an embarrassing mistake of his very own. Don’t feel too bad for Vinícius, though: he scored in the second half to give Real a 1-0 win. Also, he plays for Real Madrid. Must be nice.