Goals in football matches can be rare, which helps explain the frenzied nature of most goal celebrations. Some players take their jerseys off or get down on their knees and slide across the turf happily. They all often end up at the bottom of a pile of cheering teammates.
Then there are the players who are presented with a goalscoring opportunity and who, for whatever reason, fail. When this happens, they all do the same thing: raise their hands and place them on their heads – apparently the universal gesture to signify: How did I miss this?
If you have followed the World Cup this summer, you have probably seen it dozens of times, by players of all positions and from all countries.
Lionel Messi did, as did Cristiano Ronaldo. France, Belgium, England and Croatia all qualified for the semi-finals, but their players also posed disappointed. It has nothing to do with football and everything to do with the human psyche, according to zoologists, psychologists and others who study such things.
The gesture means “you know you messed up,” said University of British Columbia psychology professor Jessica Tracy. “He’s going to tell others, ‘I understand and I’m sorry, so you don’t have to kick me out of the group, you don’t have to kill me.'”
It’s not limited to the shooter either. In one of the most replayed football blunders of all time, from the 2010 World Cup, Nigeria’s Yakubu Aiyegbeni missed an empty net from about 10 feet away. Although Aiyegbeni barely moved afterwards, almost every one of his teammates and coaches makes the gesture in immediate synchronization and not repeated.
In his seminal 1981 study of the sport, “The Soccer Tribe,” zoologist Desmond Morris included the gesture in his catalog of 12 player reactions to defeat. He noted its self-comfort feature, which he described as “a form of self-contact, a widespread device used when the individual feels the need for a reassuring embrace, but has no one immediately available. to give him one. It is also seen in non-human primates.
In 2008, Tracy published an influential study with her colleague David Matsumoto, in which they studied the victory and defeat gestures of sighted and congenitally blind Olympic athletes. They found evidence to suggest that pride and shame behaviors were innate and universal.
“You have your head in your hands, it’s a shame” Tracy said. “You have the constriction of the body, in the way the player moves his arms around his head, almost to make himself smaller. These are very classic shame display items.
No one knows better than the players when they are wrong. Cobi Jones, who had a long career with the United States men’s national team and now works as a television analyst, said in a phone interview that egregious failure triggers, along with the gesture, a sense of disbelief and of embarrassment. “That’s why we train, day in and day out, to get that ball in the net,” he said. “And it’s simple. This is the one you shouldn’t miss. »
The gesture is also commonly performed after a goalkeeper has made a dramatic save to prevent what would otherwise be a safe goal. One of the most famous examples is the 2006 World Cup final. Late in extra time of a draw, French star Zinedine Zidane fired a header he thought was destined to win the tournament, only to see Italian goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon, push the ball over the crossbar with his fingertips. Zidane’s hands went straight to the top of his bald head.
Whether the ball misses the net because of a blunder by the shooter or a spectacular save by the keeper, the response from the players left behind remains almost the same. “It’s exactly the same statistical reality,” said British football historian David Goldblatt. “You have your chance. You miss it, a guardian saves it, whatever. The mechanism by which you get to this point is neither here nor there.
Jones described the attacking player’s experience on both occasions as a “shock”.
“When people are unexpectedly startled, their hand almost goes up to their head in a protective motion,” said Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. “The oldest type of behavioral intention in this class of behaviors is to protect your head from blows.”
In 1996 Keltner published a study of people’s emotional responses to sudden bursts of noise. The subjects in this study had a reaction similar to football players after a near miss. “You hear a very loud sound, and it’s in the correlative world that something might hit your head, and you defend your head, which is vulnerable and critical,” Keltner said. “Any kind of action like the near miss, source of psychic pain, will produce these protective head movements.”
The basic gesture can be accompanied by subtle additions. Players may cover their faces with their hands or jerseys, another typical display of shame. Or they could bow their heads to the sky in what Goldblatt sees as “ask that the misfire be interpreted as a consequence of fate rather than their own mistake.”
“When people are impressed, they look up,” said Keltner, who has spent time with the Golden State Warriors coaching staff discussing his compassionate work. Something he observed from this experience was that “serious athletes recognize chance more than fans”. Looking skyward, he said, could be the player’s “recognition of something beyond human agency”.
The hands-to-head gesture is also performed by the supporters at the same times as the players. Since they are observers rather than participants, their motivations may differ. Philip Furley, a lecturer in sports psychology at the German Sports University in Cologne, has studied the behavior of players during penalty kicks, when the gesture is common.
Of the onlookers, Furley said: “What you often find is that kind of contagion. If it’s a team you’re supporting, then if that player you’re supporting right now is showing something, you could be infected with his non-verbal behavior.
Whatever the cause, the near-absolute predictability of the gesture became its most defining trait. “It’s like punch lines, catchphrases that comedians use,” Goldblatt said. “People start laughing before you say them. A lot of comics work on that.
In this case, footballers and supporters do not need to work on the gesture. It seems to come naturally.