In a 2006 New York Times article, the late David Foster Wallace described something he coined as a “Federer Moment,” coined for the now legendary tennis player:
“These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re OK.”
Moments like these are one of the many reasons we watch sports. To see human beings accomplish things that seem so far beyond their abilities makes one question whether we have entered an age of human-like androids, with all of our favorite athletes the first humans to be replaced by replicants.
These “Federer Moments” have the potential to break us out of our shells of disillusionment. They are moments where adults are able to channel, if only for a second, that feeling of being a child again and witnessing something truly unbelievable, because we have not yet been broken down by the rote misery that can be life.
This is the visual representation of that happening:
That is Bayern Munich head coach Pep Guardiola after witnessing Robert Lewandowski score five goals in nine minutes last week against Wolfsburg. This monumental event in goal-scoring history has, of course, been covered at length here and by every other news outlet that even tangentially relates to the sport of soccer. It is a Federer Moment of the highest degree, an event that really does not need any additional exposition besides simply saying what happened: Five goals in nine minutes.
That Federer Moment did not stop there though. Just five days later, Lewandowski scored a brace as Bayern defeated Mainz 05 3-0. Then, exactly a week after his five-goal explosion, Lewandowski scored a hat trick against Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb, once again in the Champions League, as Bayern coasted to a 5-0 victory. That is 10 goals in three matches — technically, two and a half, as he came on as a second half substitute against Wolfsburg — spanning seven days by one man. Or perhaps it was goal-scoring cyborg; if I was Borussia Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel, Bayern’s next opponent, I would demand to see evidence that this man is indeed human.
People, it is time you stopped what you are doing and take time to appreciate that we are living in the Robert Lewandowski Moment.
What Lewandowski has done over the past 225 minutes he has spent on a soccer field is the kind of thing that transcends explanation. As fans, we are always trying to examine the sports we love for trends and patterns. We pore over statistics and replays and the writings of so-called experts in order to try to understand games that are, by their nature, unpredictable, but there is nothing that could have foretold the explosion we are witnessing right now. The simple facts of the Lewandowski’s Moment do not do it justice. He could easily have another goal or two; he has had a couple opportunities late in these games that did not go in, possibly on account of apathy or pity, but that would still not truly give you an idea of how otherworldly he has been.
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The only way to understand what has happened over the past three matches is to relive each goal:
Wolfsburg, 51’ – Wolfsburg is up 1-0 at halftime when Lewandowski enters as a sub, but the buildup to this goal is fast and unrelenting – beautiful until the end; typical of Bayern, as of late. As with many moments of greatness this one starts inauspiciously, as Lewandowski simply parries a Muller cross into the back of the net. Nothing special. Allianz Arena breathes a sigh of relief, its club now even with a Wolfsburg team that’s become the star of a rising Bundesliga bourgeoisie.
Wolfsburg, 52’ – Those sighs of relief were, of course, followed by inhalations, as the majority of exhalations are. That is how this thing called ‘breathing’ works. In the time it took some to perform their breaths, Lewandowski netted again, this time from distance. Watching the match on TV, I did not even see how Bayern got the ball back so quickly; the network was still showing replays of his last goal.
Wolfsburg, 55’ – During the three-minute gap between goals, the fans at Allianz Arena surely lit up cigarettes, sat up on their pillows and patted Lewa on the head. ‘That was great, but I think that’s enough,’ to which Lewandowski said, ‘Nah. Not yet,’ completing his hat trick with a goal from sheer determination. The third goal is where Lewandowski stops looking at the idea of a goal as something to strive towards but as something that is his by right.
Wolfsburg, 57’ – It feels weird to do, but for a second let’s talk about another Bayern player: Mr. Douglas Costa. Over this three-game stretch, it feels as if almost every Bayern goal has started with him speeding down the left flank, just waiting for his team to catch up so he can find someone for of his perfectly placed crosses. This time, that recipient was Lewandowski, and he made good on the deal. You get me the ball, Doug, and I’ll swing my right leg out at almost 90 degrees from my body and somehow send the ball in just over the keeper’s hands.
This fourth goal is where we realize we have entered the land of the absurd, where anything is possible and the fifth goal is almost expected.
Wolfsburg, 60’ – Maybe we did expect this goal, but not like that: A Mario Goetze cross followed by a leaping sort of roundhouse kick from Lewandowski, followed by the ascension of the righteous into heaven.
Ridiculous amounts of money and time are spent all to the ends of putting a small orb through a large rectangle loosely outfitted with some cotton latticework, in nine minutes Robert Lewandowski made it all look so easy. Everyone kindly remove your jaws from the floor, there is another match on Saturday.
Mainz, 51’ – One cannot help but feel sorry for the poor men in red. Perhaps it was that sense of pity that led Thomas Muller to shank a penalty kick early in the first half. He knew that six minutes into the second half, a Kingsley Coman cross would drop towards the center of the box, where Lewandowski’s head awaited to send the ball netward. Those 50 minutes of goalless soccer from Lewandowski were a ruse, it turned out. They were the eye of the storm. We knew not of what we were witnessing, only that we were witnessing something of great magic.
Mainz, 63’ – Just foul him. He strolls past three Mainz players and their keeper in order to score; one of them should’ve just fouled him. I never want to endorse the more cynical side of soccer, but when dealing with a force of nature, sometimes evil is necessary.
Zagreb, 21’ – On to match three. Costa scored the opener here, obviously trying to lull Dinamo Zagreb into a false sense of security regarding Bayern’s Polish missile. An embarrassingly misplayed header gave Thiago the ball, and as he casually walked towards the net, he seemed to remember that Lewandowski was there. Why be selfish and score yourself when you can contribute to what could end up being one of the greatest goal-scoring runs of all time? It does not even appear as if Lewa is trying at this point.
Zagreb, 28’ – It took a second to determine whether or not this ball actually went in. It bounced off the crossbar and downward and, upon initial viewing, it was ambiguous as to whether it had landed in the goal. Except it actually was not that ambiguous: Robert Lewandowski had touched it, and our footballing King Midas turns everything he touches to goals.
Zagreb, 55’ – What even is this. That subtle touch from Thiago to Costa. That sublime backheel from Costa back to Thiago. Lewa gets the ball with his back to goal yet somehow turns around and in a second the ball is already headed towards the net. This is confidence radiating out of Lewandowski and into his teammates. This is contagious excellence. This is the platonic ideal of total soccer.
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Elizabeth Kübler-Ross famously formulated her five stages of death and grieving — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — while working with terminally ill patients. I wonder that a similar model might apply to great moments of joy. Just as humans struggle to accept the horrors of life and the human condition, it is at times just as difficult to accept joy. At times, it feels illusory, or undeserved; a brief moment of respite that only serves to remind us that life is mostly mundane, at best, and miserable at worst. When we experience great moments of joy, it takes a process to accept that yes, this joy is real, and yes, we do deserve it.
I am not sure what those stages of joy may be, but I know I experienced them over the last week in. These three matches served as a reminder as to why we love sports. To live is to face a near constant struggle. We must search for joy wherever we can find it, because it will not find us.
At its worst, sports can provide a few hours in which we do not have to face these struggles. At its best, it can be a salve; it can provide us so much happiness that we spend the rest of the day (or an entire week, in this case) stumbling around with smiles on our faces and songs (specifically “Stern des Südens”) in our hearts.
What Robert Lewandowski is currently doing will not last forever. Enjoy it while you can, because we may never see anything like it again.
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