December 2003, Finn Park, Ballybofey. The light rain cascades against the beaming haze of the floodlights. The winter wind chills to the bone.
On a pitch that is more mud than grass, Finn Harps and Derry City attempt to play something loosely resembling ‘the beautiful game’. Wayward pass follows wayward pass, foul follows foul.
I’m six years old, huddled in a coat that is too big for me, hand-me-down hat and gloves, longing for the sweet release of the final whistle. This is my first experience of live football.
My dad has told me that when the clock on the electronic scoreboard at the far side of the ground hits 90, the game will be over and we can go home. And so I stand transfixed upon it.
In giant green letters it reads FINN HARPS 0-0 DERRY CITY. The two large zeroes loom over the old ground, over the rusting corrugated metal and cracked blue paint, like the painted eyes of Doctor TJ Eckleburg surveying the grim spectacle beneath — the League of Ireland’s own ‘valley of ashes’.
Thirty minutes gone. 0-0. The rain pours. 45 gone. 0-0. The wind howls. 60 gone. 0-0. A supporter curses. And at last 90. 0-0. It’s over.
The scoreless draw in football is a curious phenomenon. It has few equivalents in other sports, a match taking place without a single instance of that which the game is played for, in this case scoring goals.
And yet there is something unifying about a good old 0-0. Fans of rival footballing creeds and colours can bond over their disgust of what has played out, over the sheer tedium they’ve been forced to endure throughout the preceding 90 minutes.
‘The dullest game in World Cup history’
A 0-0 can take many forms. Perhaps the most traditional is that of the ‘borefest’, a game so bereft of clear-cut chances and attacking competence that it becomes a wonder how football ever became so popular in the first place.
An example that immediately springs to mind is the 2006 World Cup second-round clash between Switzerland and Ukraine, a match so devoid of drama and incident that the Guardian has since labelled it ‘the dullest game in World Cup history’.
‘The failure of two teams to present any kind of a spectacle is a reminder that these talented players are not so unlike ourselves — flawed and liable to underperform’
Such was the punishing nature of the spectacle, ITV’s highlights programme skipped straight to the resultant penalty shootout in a bid to prevent its viewership from slipping into a coma.
These are the matches that lead one to question the very nature of why we enjoy football. How can a sport which at its best is so enthralling be so abjectly terrible?
How can a sport which has gifted us Liverpool 4-3 Newcastle in 1996 also subject us to Ireland 0-0 England on a beautiful, primed-for-football, sunny Sunday in Dublin. There’s a cruelty to it all, but still we watch.
Indeed, perhaps the opportunity to moan and quip about such dire games supersedes the actual drudgery of witnessing it in the first place.
There’s usually more of a thrill to be found in discussing the faults of an event rather than its merits, and this often rings true when it comes to football matches. In the absence of jaw-dropping skill, we zone in on the blunders, on the general ineptitude of what we’ve seen.
In the case of a 0-0, the profligacy of an attacker, the dour, defensive tactics of the coaches, or the whistle-happy referee can become the fall-guy for our disgust.
In many ways, there is more to joy be found in assessing the shortcomings of professional athletes than the strengths. The failure of two teams to present any kind of a spectacle is a reminder that these talented players are not so unlike ourselves — flawed and liable to underperform.
The rare jewel
In contrast to the borefests, there is a unique kind of goalless draw whereby all aspects of the match seem geared towards a thrilling scoreline. There are chances aplenty, defensive mistakes in abundance, scintillating attacking movement, and yet the net never bulges.
Crossbars and posts are cannoned, side-netting is rippled, wonder saves performed, but the promised reward of a goal is never delivered upon.
A memorable example is Manchester United’s stalemate with Real Madrid in the Champions League in April 2000. Ronaldo and his fellow galacticos peppered the United goal with joyful abandon but could not breach the resolve of goalkeeper Mark Bosnich.
Madrid advanced on aggregate anyway to knock out the defending champions, but many were left scratching their heads as to how the game had remained scoreless.
Perhaps the most memorable instance of a riveting 0-0 was the Euro 2000 semi-final between Holland and Italy.
The great driving force of Bergkamp, Kluivert and Overmars, who had crushed Yugoslavia in the previous round, pitted against the stern and stoic Italian rearguard, featuring such iconic names as Maldini, Cannavaro, and Nesta.
It was a game the Dutch largely dominated, but profligate finishing and a Kluivert missed penalty allowed Italy to cling on and snatch victory in the penalty shoot-out.
The pleasure in this kind of scoreless draw is derived from its rarity. For every thrilling 0-0, there are innumerable desperately awful 0-0s. The scoreline itself is inscrutable when taken at face value without having seen the action.
It displays only the finality of the result, and to assume all goalless draws are dull and insipid is an insult to the great 0-0s of the past. The thrill is in the journey to the final score, rather than the score itself.
Fear of the fall
So what is the root cause of a 0-0? Is it simply a failure on the part of two teams to deliver upon their talents? In many cases it could be view that way, but often a stalemate can arise from the mere ramifications of a result — what’s at stake.
Time and again, we see fixtures billed as the match to end all matches, the culmination of football’s historical journey, and yet they deliver a damp squib.
The World Cup final in 1994 had all the makings of a classic. The Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Los Angeles — a veritable behemoth of a stadium, full to the brim with supporters salivating at the prospect of Brazil vs Italy.
‘Those afraid to tread the precipice for fear of the fall. It all breeds a grim pageant of tedium’
And yet as the baking sun sapped the energy of the players, inflicting upon them the jelly-leggedness with which anyone who has exercised in such heat can relate to, so the game descended into drudgery, an endless toil towards the final whistle and the ultimate relief of a penalty shoot-out.
The magnitude of the occasion, combined with the conditions, had suddenly rendered these two great teams impotent, a nervous husk of the sides which had swept away the rest of the competition.
A similar occurrence took place in the Champions League final in 2003 at Old Trafford, as Juventus and AC Milan played out arguably the least memorable major final in modern football history.
While it may seem unsurprising that an all-Italian final in the early 2000s finished scoreless, the reality is that these showpiece events are the games that fans and pundits look to to provide the season’s defining moments.
This undoubtedly contributes to such stalemates, the fear of being the player remembered for a mistake, or the coach lambasted for his tactical naivety — those afraid to tread the precipice for fear of the fall. It all breeds a grim pageant of tedium.
Indeed, a match with very little at stake can yield a similar cocktail of excruciating boredom and blithering ineptitude. France 0-0 Denmark, one of the lowlights of the 2018 World Cup in Russia is a prime example.
Two teams, safe in the knowledge of their progression to the next round, simply going through the motions — an insult to the fans who spent fortunes to be there, but the sad inevitable consequence of a game with nothing on the line.
Like it or loathe it, the 0-0 is firmly rooted in the fabric of football. Ideas to introduce rules to discourage such scorelines have been bandied around, but have usually floated away on the breeze.
Some have suggested awarding no points to either team for a goalless draw, or even settling a stalemate with a penalty-shootout to at least salvage some vestige of entertainment from a match.
But those who would seek to outlaw the 0-0 are neglecting a key truth. The joy of a good-old fashioned snoozefest is that it accentuates the thrill of the really great games. It amplifies the true wonder of football at its finest, at its most gripping.
The reason we revel in the excitement of Istanbul ’05 is because we have endured Manchester ’03. The reason I now bask in the glory of a seven-goal thriller between Finn Harps and Bohemians is because I have withstood the bleak despair of that 0-0 against Derry.
It’s the same reason we celebrate the highs of life, because they are offset against the lows that we’ve felt in the past and know will come rumbling around the corner again in due time.
The same reason we lounge in the sun on a summer’s day, because we still recall the chilling claws of the previous winter. The 0-0 helps us to appreciate and savour the good days in football, and for that it deserves our respect, if maybe not our love.
Feature image courtesy of Matthew Wilkinson via Flickr Creative Commons under licence Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Cardiff-Ipswich photo courtesy of Jon Candy via Flickr Creative Commons under licence Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)