You might not think it from the look on his face, but the photo above depicts a man immediately after he scored a monumentally important goal. Or maybe, in the confidence of his statuesque pose—his expressionless and stationary presenting of himself to the crowd, the way it feels like he’s saying to the tens of thousands in attendance and the millions watching this F.A. Cup semifinal on TV, Welp, YOU might be shocked by the baller shit I just pulled off, but I sure as hell am not, so why don’t you just stand there and stare at me for a good while until it sinks in?—you could detect both the importance of the preceding goal and also the insouciant cockiness commonly reserved for the truly great.
And yet it’s only when you appreciate that the man standing before the crowd and the cameras radiating such imperious energy is Gerard Deulofeu, a tantalizingly promising young talent who’s neither quite as promising nor quite as young as he once was, a star nowhere other than in his own mind, only then can you begin to understand why we love this outrageously gifted and indecently conceited guy so dearly.
It was thanks to Deulofeu’s heroics on Sunday that Watford were able to pull off a wild comeback against Wolverhampton and advance to the F.A. Cup final. The 25-year-old Spanish forward didn’t start the match, and only came into the game when it already looked like all was lost. Wolves were up 2-0 when Deulofeu first stepped onto the pitch as a 66th minute substitute. Luckily for Watford, that would not be the case for long.
Just 13 minutes after entering the match, Deulofeu gave Watford hope with what is probably the best goal he has ever scored in his career. After a teammate’s long throw-in and subsequent scramble to take possession of the ball, Deulofeu found the ball at his feet inside the box at a tight angle. Where almost any normal player would’ve tried to move the ball more centrally by either dribbling or passing to create a more feasible shooting angle for himself or a teammate, Deulofeu instead went for glory himself, unleashing a high, arcing, insanely curving shot/chip that looked more like a magic bullet than a kicked soccer ball. Somehow, if found the far upper corner of the net, and Watford were back in it.
Deep into stoppage time, striker Troy Deeney sealed Watford’s comeback by winning and then converting the penalty kick that evened the scoreline and ensured the game would at least go to extra time. There, Deulofeu’s speed and freshness really shined through. His running was the impetus behind several of Watford’s best chances to score the breakthrough goal, and he was rewarded for his efforts with the eventual winner in the 104th minute. Streaking down the pitch on a two-man counterattack alongside Andre Gray, Deulofeu met a Gray pass on the edge of the penalty area, took a perfect touch that sent him past the lone defender on his hip, coolly slid the ball past the keeper to score Watford’s third, and then ran over to the sideline to pose for his glamour shot:
The reactions that follow big moments in sports are often as compelling as the big moments themselves. They offer viewers a rare glimpse into the interior lives of the athletes so many of us sports fans obsess over and tie our own interior selves to.
When a rotation player on a mid-major college basketball team in the NCAA tournament finds the ball in his hands at the end of an unexpectedly close game against a team from a power conference, and throws up a shot that falls through the net right as the buzzer sounds, giving his team the upset victory, and in response he immediately transforms from composed professional athlete into a giddy schoolboy in a state of unalloyed joy, hopping up and down into the arms of his elated teammates, you can see how the size of the feat he just pulled off doesn’t quite jibe with his perception of himself, and the sublime cognitive dissonance between who he thinks he is and what he just did expresses itself in unconstrained happiness.
Alternatively, when a soccer player widely heralded as the best the world has ever seen, deep into a career of countless trophies and goals and successes, takes to the home field of his club’s biggest rivals and, with practically the final kick of the game, guts his opponents with the most ruthless of game-winning goals, and then celebrates by jogging over to stands, pulling his shirt over his head, and calmly displaying the name on the back of his jersey before the heartbroken fans for what becomes one of the iciest Fuck Yous in the game’s history, you can see how after a decade of regularly doing the impossible on the very biggest stages imaginable, that player has so internalized his own greatness that no moment can overwhelm his well-earned sense of self.
That’s what makes Deulofeu so funny. Factually, he’s much closer to a small-time college basketball player hitting a lucky buzzer beater than he is to a historic soccer icon doing what he always does. This is a guy once regarded as the next big thing who still has yet to really live up to that reputation, on the fifth club of his career, albeit enjoying his best ever season in his first year as a full-time starter. You’d think a guy like that would lose his mind after scoring a pair of sensational, hugely important goals in a big game. Instead, Deulofeu scored that goal and stood around like he does shit like that every day.
It’s still unclear whether Deulofeu will ever become something close to the player everyone thought he’d be back when he was a precocious teen lighting up the youth ranks at Barcelona. But what seems obvious is that Deulofeu at the very least thinks he’s well on his way toward getting there, and maybe even believes himself to have already arrived there, and that with the talents and mentality he has demonstrated himself in possession of, he’ll always be the kind of player we love to watch and root for.