Why Hal Robson-Kanu is responsible for the greatest goal in the history of football
If you were offered the opportunity to be President of the World for 24 hours, what would your first act be? My answer’s always the same: build a statue of Hal Robson-Kanu scoring that goal in Euro 2016. Ideally outside the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, but I’d happily extend it to versions in Cardiff, Reading and anywhere everyone’s favourite cryptocurrency-investing footballer has played to date.
When it comes to favourite or best goals ever, two years and a lot of thinking has passed, but absolutely nothing can eclipse Robson-Kanu’s Cruyff turn in the penalty area that took three defenders out of play before the striker fired low past Thiabut Courtois in the Belgian goal, and all but securing Wales’s place in the semi-finals.
Sure, there are potentially better goals. You could argue in recent years the overhead kicks by Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo in the Champions League are up there. Riley McGree’s outstanding scorpion kick for the Newcastle Jets is definitely the best goal you’ve probably never seen, or seen but don’t remember when, where or who. Classic goals such as Diego Maradona’s non-Hand of God goal against England, or John Barnes at the Maracana, or many, many more could lay claim to being the best goal of all time.
But there are a number of factors that make Robson-Kanu’s goal so special. Firstly, it’s the fact it’s Hal Robson-Kanu, a decent enough player to have a career in the Premier League, but also a striker whose specialism lay in not actually scoring goals. He was the beloved tireless workhorse who netted just five times in 44 games for Wales, opening up space for the likes of Bale to finish the job with aplomb.
He is a player whose connection to Wales was through his grandmother. A man without a club at that particular point in time. And a player who, if he pitched up at your club, would be met with an “oh, ok” rather than the excitement that sees grown men decamp to training grounds and insert a sex toy in a Sky Sports reporter’s ear.
If this doesn’t make the point clear, let me repeat. It’s Hal Robson-Kanu. Had Lionel Messi, Ronaldo or Paul Pogba pulled off such as audacious move, the internet would be drowned in a sea of mass salivation as pundits and banter accounts all rushed to hyperbolise themselves in proclaiming it the best goal ever scored.
Hell, when Johann Cruyff first pioneered the move, there was mass salivation on sofas rather than keyboards, but this was still Cruyff, an imperious maestro who performed these moves with the nonchalance of James Bond lighting a cigarette while asking for a vodka martini, shaken not stirred. That was Cruyff. This was Hal Robson-Kanu.
Secondly, this was a goal scored for Wales. A team who hadn’t made a major tournament since 1958. A team who were more associated with heroic qualifying failures than troubling semi-finals. A team who were always a balance of brilliant individuals and Championship stalwarts.
Granted, this was a very good Welsh team, easily as good if not better as the 2004 vintage that should have qualified for that year’s Euros at the expense of Russia. It had Bale, Aaron Ramsey, the under-appreciated Joe Allen and peak-era Ashley Williams marshalling the defence. But still, Wales. Hal Robson-Kanu playing for Wales.
And thirdly, this was Wales against Belgium. A team that’s been regarded as an outside bet for any major tournament for so long they may as well change their nickname from Red Devils to Dark Horses. Wales had Hal Robson-Kanu and Neil Taylor (alongside Bale and Ramsey). Belgium had Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens and Jan Vertonghen. Sure, Wales were goo,d but not comfortably-take-apart Belgium good. But yes. Robson-Kanu for Wales against star-studded Belgium.
Then there’s the timing of the goal. The quarter-final between Belgium and Wales was tightly poised. Williams had levelled the match at 1-1 on 30 minutes with a trademark thumping header after Radja Nainggolan’s thunderous 25 yarder opened, and Wales had started the second half strongly when, on 55 minutes, Ramsey’s neat ball found Robson-Kanu with his back to goal in the penalty area. One drop of the shoulder and a shot later, the ball was in the back of the net and Wales were 2-1 up.
This wasn’t just a goal to open the scoring. This was a goal that set up the game for a grandstanding final 35 minutes. It put Wales in the driving seat. It asked Belgium to step up and justify their tag of pre-match favourites. It was a goal that made the semi-finals — hitherto a fantasy going into the tournament — a reality.
Sam Vokes may have added a third to put supporters into dreamland and secure passage to the final four, but that goal, that goal, was the moment that every Welsh fan suddenly realised that we belong on that stage and could actually win the whole bloody tournament. Hal Robson-Kanu for Wales against Belgium in the 55th minute did that.
And finally, there’s the sheer experience of watching the goal, processing what happened, and celebrating like you’ve never celebrated before. For non-Welsh fans, the jaws dropped and the praise started. For Welsh fans, it was an experience like we’ve never experienced before and may well never experience again. We’re used to relative success in rugby (although many of us are still bitterly upset over the 2011 World Cup semi-final when Sam Warburton was red-carded for a dangerous tackle). We’re used to the odd heroic result. But really, we don’t beat Belgium and we don’t do it while scoring goals of the tournament.
That realisation that we were watching history being made, that our relative minnow on football’s world stage had just done something quite brilliant, and the sheer joy of that goal was the peak moment of celebration. If it could be bottled, the store that sold it would command an entire floor of the St David’s shopping centre in Cardiff.
It was pure, unbridled joy that no goal at club supporter level — not Dean Moxey’s 45-yard goal against Doncaster Rovers to set up an FA Cup tie with Manchester United, not even Rob Edwards’s stooping header at Wembley to end five years of exile to non-league — could ever surpass. Exeter City will always get another bite at a big game, even if it takes decades. For Wales, this may never happen again, ever.
And, reader, I am not ashamed to say that when that goal went in, I wept tears of pure joy. I was in a pub near Southwark tube station with a mixture of Welsh supporters and friends. When Robson-Kanu twisted past the Belgian defence, we gasped. When Robson-Kanu nestled the ball in the back of the net, we looked at each other open mouthed. And then we roared, we hugged each other, we hugged strangers and the refrain “Gwlad, Gwlad, pleidol wyf i’m gwlad” rang out from the newly-formed Cymru crew in the bar. It’s a moment that can never, ever been replicated. And nor can my hangover the next morning.
If this goal were a scientific equation, it would read something like (Robson-Kanu x [Wales + Belgium])/OMG + beer. Men in white coats could try and replicate it time and again, but it Wales, at least, it would be as elusive as Higgs-Boson. Like an eclipse, it only occurs when all planets align and a very specific point in time.
Other countries may have their own equation. Other supporters may have their own version of the goal. But try telling any Welsh supporter that there has ever been a more glorious goal scored in footballing history than that night in Lille and they’ll simply start by replying “But Hal Robson-Kanu…” before their eyes mist over and their brain returns to a happier, more simple time.
Hal Robson-Kanu. Forever immortalised, never bettered.