I didn’t notice him at first. This sometimes happens even when I watch my favorite team — more often than should I admit. My eyes are trained by bright colors, camera foci and movement, and ball pinging.
My eyes are not trained to notice Sokratis Papastathopoulos.
And especially not to notice him across the center circle during non-set piece events when BVB is building up an attack. By contrast, I routinely watched Mats Hummels make deep runs across the center circle during these occasions. Hummels loved to play long slicing ground balls deep into the final 3rd from this advanced perch — not always (or even usually?) with successful results! Currently, until last Tuesday’s bombing, I was becoming used to watching newbie Marc Bartra follow Hummels’ now-ghostly footpaths into enemy territory, as the Spanish centerback seems equipped with a La Masia-trained passing toolkit. But not Sokratis.
Let’s back up a paragraph. Of course, I’m talking about defenders here — specifically, centerbacks.
What I said about not noticing Sokratis isn’t exactly true. I notice him plenty during a match: lunging back and around into a sliding tackle — usually under slightly desperate circumstances — kvetching with the referee, slow-mo replays of the Greek’s hips vicious clattering an attacker, or shots of him pointing his finger and ragefully yelling instructions at teammates. It’s not as if you can watch a BVB match and not notice Sokratis. He’s a fairly visible part of any BVB match.
However, where and when I notice Sokratis is an entirely different matter. Football is all about location and timing in this sense.
The Greek defender is visible as Dortmund’s no-nonsense “hit man,” which means he’s tasked with cleaning up messes, covering for teammates’ defensive mistakes, or scaring the piss out of opponents. As BVB’s hit man, Sokratis is necessary fluent in football’s “dark arts” — those little things that leaves my seven year old son aghast about humanity, fairness, and the moral order of things, because, you know, the recess playground looms tomorrow. Jersey tugging. Arm tangling. Disguised body slamming or pushing. A hidden elbow or two. Some theatrical flailing on contact.
Yep. Sokratis is quite visible during Dortmund matches. But he’s not visible in build up play that’s crossed over the center circle and into the final 3rd.
So I was startled when I saw this following goal scoring sequence occur on Saturday when Borussia Dortmund hosted Eintracht Frankfurt:
It all starts in the center circle. A dark-haired BVBer receives a pass. At this point, I have no idea whom: Nuri Sahin? Christian Pulisic? Even Julian Weigl? Not Sokratis. Maybe Bartra, but of course he’s not playing.
As my nameless friend dribbles into the final 3rd, at first I’m thinking its Sahin — my best guess until I can see a kit number. Finally, some Eintracht defenders close the open space. One defender makes a committal challenge on the ball, but my BVBer makes a simultaneously nifty and lurching crossover dribbling move to evade the now-stumbling defender.
More open space appears. By now, I’m catching glimpses of a 20-something kit number. But, damnit, this dribbling BVBer doesn’t have Pulisic’s posture or gait. We are six seconds into this sequence of mystery.
Finally, the climatic moment arrives: the last bank of Eintracht defenders steps forward, suddenly realizing that this mysterious attacker might actually shoot the ball. He does. The shot expertly and forcefully swerves to the upper left, evading Eintracht keeper Lukas Hradecky. Goal!
Even as the goal net is recoiling from the ball’s impact, the BVB goal scorer is already wheeling away and celebrating his goal. He’s almost immediately mobbed by all his teammates.
Of course Sokratis Papastathopoulos is the goal scorer.
Suddenly, details from this sequence snap meaningfully into place. For example, no wonder I didn’t first recognize the BVBer dribbling the ball: it was freaking Sokratis, who I wouldn’t expect to receive the ball in this particular location at this particular time. No wonder the dribbler’s gait and posture looked slightly glitched, as if not rendered completely smooth by training. No wonder that little dribbling move to throw off the committed defender was paradoxical in its clumsy effectiveness. No wonder the dribbler looked taller than Pulisic and Sahin, but shorter and wider than Weigl. Yet wasn’t that shot on goal wonderful?
Sokratis is the key to our cipher: he confirms to his own physical traits. Of course. I mean, doesn’t he always look like an assemblage of parts? I don’t want to evoke the tired Frankenstein cliche, because Sokratis is ein gutaussehender Mann, yet given his height and long limbs, there’s a creakiness of assembled parts to the defender. However, as our cipher key, Sokratis also briefly transcended my own understanding of his role, location, timing, and skill on a football pitch by dribbling through a few banks of defenders and swerving home a powerful shot.
Sokratis’ goal is made even more meaningful within the context surrounding the match. First, his goal broke a 1-1 scoreline and occurred minutes after the guests had tied the match. More significantly, we BVBers were still reeling from the Tuesday bombing attack, and, speaking for myself, I had no idea what to expect from this match. And then there were Sokratis’ tears after the rushed Champions Leg rescheduled match on Wednesday. The defender cried and emoted, searching for words during the press conference after BVB’s 2-3 loss to AS Monaco. Remember, only days prior to the Eintracht match, his life was threatened. And here he is.
If football were a screenwriter, s/he would be accused of schmaltzy melodrama. Yet because sport is unscripted, i.e. it’s “reality,” what’s melodrama in one context is transformed into raw life “narrative” or “storyline” in another context. Which is cool and all. But pause for a sentence and consider how remarkable these “real life” moments are. I know, I know, statistically-speaking enough randomness occurs to birth remarkable coincidences, or our confirmation bias hunting is strong enough to create lovely “storylines.” I know. But still, in its assemblage these stories are remarkable for what’s created when we stitch events together.
In this case, we have Sokratis — and what he’s all about as a footballer, which I’ve tried to sketch out in this piece — plus Tuesday’s terror plus Saturday’s win over Eintracht. It’s all a lovely story for the moment.
My favorite kind of surprise in life occurs during sporting events. In these settings, surprise tingles my brain because modern sport performance is so specialized, following grooves of automatism, which in turn allows modern athletes to achieve excellence previously unimaginable. Hence, a defender performing the role of defender in football. So when these grooves vanish for a moment, it’s sheer delight. It’s delightful, because, in this case, first Sokratis had to consciously (I think) leave his “groove” and perform something new, then second he had to succeed. Check and check. Surprise achieved.