Philippe Mexes was many things. A solid and reliable defender at the peak of Italian football for over a decade? Yes. Hot-headed, unpredictable, and always up for a scrap? Absolutely. But an underrated scorer of amazing goals?
Well, yes. That too.
During his 12-year career in Italy, shared between spells at AS Roma and Milan, the French defender scored several of the most outrageous, audacious and unforgettable goals in our sport’s history. ‘So what?’ you’re thinking. ‘Plenty of players boast a YouTube highlights reel that could make Yaya Sanogo look like Yaya Sa-loada-goals.’
Poor banter from you lot, that. But this is different, mainly because Mexes is a defender. Of course, defenders know how to welly a football – they’ve been taking goal kicks for the tubby little goalkeepers who couldn’t clear his own penalty area since the age of seven.
But this is no ‘Phil Jagielka hit-and-hope vs Liverpool.’ This is unadulterated, unteachable technique, in its purest form. The date is 21 November 2012. Rapper Snoop Dogg has become Snoop Lion, everyone is doing the Gangnam Style dance, and Gossip Girl’s true identity is finally revealed.
Simpler times. But I’m sure we can all agree that Mexes was the man who left the longest-lasting mark on 2012.
We can only imagine that as the French defender was hanging around the edge of the penalty area in a Champions League group-stage clash with Belgian outfit Anderlecht, he was singing La La La by the Lion, practicing the steps to his new favourite South Korean artist, and hoping he’d remembered to press record on the finale of his favourite American high-school drama.
On the other hand, he was a professional footballer who was probably very focused on the task in hand. Milan were 1-0 up in Belgium, and were in possession of the ball in the form of a free-kick with around 20 minutes to play.
Mexes, a regular goal-scoring threat from set-pieces, had made the long journey up the field to join the attack. As the kick was taken, the Frenchman followed his deadly instincts and moved deeper into the penalty area. However, it quickly became apparent that the delivery was slightly more wayward than first anticipated, and looked to be landing in the right corner of the danger zone.
In an instant, the centre-back sprung to life.
He turned, raced to meet the ball at its peak, and cushioned it well into the night sky with a trampoline-chest touch. It didn’t look particularly orthodox – but nothing about this man is.
That control left the defender with his back to goal, on the edge of the 18-yard box, and pushed all the way out to the right-hand side of the area. What’s the plan, Phil? Set it back to a teammate who can float it into the danger area? Try and hook it into the box yourself?
Or, attempt the most insane, unlikely and frankly wasteful, acrobatic overhead kick from which even the most skilled of players would fail to hit the target? Aye, go on, I’ll take option three.
The Frenchman waited for the missile to drop a couple of feet, and then flung his legs into the air, allowing ball to meet right boot with the sweetest of connections. From the moment it left his foot, time stood still.
You could hear a pin drop around the stadium, as supporters attempted to process just what they were witnessing, acknowledging the possibility that they were witnessing the greatest goal they would ever see in the flesh.
The ball was floating towards the goal. The pace of the shot was far from fearsome, but it soon dawned on us all that the goalkeeper was stranded. He hadn’t gambled on this piece of art unfolding before him, and he was nothing more than a spectator to the world’s most outrageous strike.
It was an arcing effort, but time was running out for it to plummet back down to earth and hit the net. The crowd held its breath.
This time, fortune favoured the brave.
The ball finally, finally, dropped, plopping into the goalkeeper’s bottom corner, completing its dramatic and seemingly impossible journey. Another split second of silence followed, before the unsuspecting away following erupted.
It had happened. Their eyes were not deceiving them.
It was a goal befitting of a stage and audience such as a Champions League evening for I Rossoneri. Any commentator would say it had come from the unlikeliest of sources, but history dictates that this wasn’t the case.
Mexes embraced the improbable, and made the impossible nothing more than an opinion.