Garnacho’s wondrous overhead golazo against Everton on Nov. 26 reminded the world soccer community of why we find the bicycle kick so damned compelling. It remains the most dynamic, daringly athletic maneuver in a game replete with them, and it doesn’t matter where on the pitch they might happen. Check out the images attached here. Defenders of all skill levels react similarly when someone goes up for a bike: They back away slightly, because recklessly contesting may mean a boot to the face. USMNT legend Marcelo Balboa is attempting a mere clearance here, circa 1995. His Swiss opponent wants nothing to do with it, while teammate Cle Kooiman is clearly transfixed by the spectacle. The immediate and universal on-field reaction is to give the artist a wide berth — out of self-preservation and pure intrigue. They all want to see if this cheeky bastard can pull it off.
Balboa became sorta famous for his overhead acumen. He is unofficially credited with the most killer bike in MLS history, back in 2000. Even more celebrated was his effort during the 1994 World Cup group stage — and he missed the target! [Apologies up front for the strange background music on that clip.] And yet, we remember that dazzling attempt vs. Colombia better than any of the three goals that were actually scored that day. Better than the own goal that cost defender Andrés Escobar his life. Better than the result itself, which remains the highest quality win by any USMNT, at any World Cup, ever.
It’s not exactly clear who invented the bicycle kick, but this much is certain: Each one, even a failed one, is a mind-blower unto itself. Any goal that may result? Icing on the cake — the stuff that seals a futbol memory in the mind’s eye forever, as Sr. Garnacho has discovered.
The most compelling high school soccer match I ever witnessed did not take place in the fall of 1980, when my Wellesley High School side won a Massachusetts state championship. That particular title run included a final where we prevailed on a sudden-death decider in the 5th overtime period. In the quarterfinal, our sweeper (#6) potted the winner with 6 seconds remaining in the 6th and final OT. I could bore you with two or three more no less epic examples. Yet the state tournament match I’ll take to my grave was contested the year before. It stays with me because we lost. Because it was decided according to the precepts of Shakespearian tragedy. On a bicycle kick.
Headed into the final game of the 1979 regular-season, our great rival, the Needham Rockets, stood unbeaten, untied, and unscored upon. This might have been the best team Coach Don Brock ever assembled — which was saying quite a lot. Under the legendary Brock, Needham had twice won state titles by 1980. His teams would eventually claim five.
“It was a big rivalry. These were neighboring towns with very good soccer programs, but they dominated back then,” recalls Peter Loiter, who coached my JV squad in 1979. The following year he would replace Phil Davis as varsity coach. “Phil Davis hated Don Brock. The only thing Brock did to deserve that was beat him — pretty much every time.”
As traditional rivals, Wellesley always played Needham to close the season, and they humbled us that late October afternoon, 3-0. Both teams qualified for the state tournament. As was custom, half a dozen members of the JV, along with Coach Loiter, were “called up” for the post-season — to provide the varsity 22 warm bodies, enough to scrimmage full field. We, the boys in red and black, torched Boston English in the first round, 3-0, but all our victory had done was earn us another date with our vaunted archrivals, still unbeaten and unscored upon, back at DeFazio Field in Needham. We JV call-ups were secretly thrilled: We never even saw our own varsity play; our respective matches were routinely contested simultaneously. As tournament benchwarmers, we’d finally get a first-hand look at the much-hyped Needham juggernaut.
This Friday afternoon fixture drew nearly a thousand of spectators. There were no bleachers. Instead, supporters from both towns ringed the field four, five and six deep. Wellesley-Needham games of any type always drew rowdy crowds and town-wide attentions: These were neighboring communities, after all. Until the late 19th century, Wellesley had been a part of Needham. Our football teams still maintain the oldest schoolboy rivalry in the nation. Our soccer programs were indeed among the best in Massachusetts. This match represented the apotheosis of all that history, plus my first taste of fully-fledged state tournament pomp and circumstance. The spectacle left me slack-jawed, even knowing I likely wouldn’t play. And I did not play, which, in a weird way, allowed me to absorb and remember the match so well through the years. Including its extraordinary denouement.
The dreaded Rockets were as advertised: skilled, fit, deep, hard and physically imposing. Their goalie stood 6’6” or something ridiculous; he would go on to play D1 at Hartwick, a national collegiate power in those days. Just watching them warm up, it didn’t seem we had much of a chance but the Red Raiders wasted no time in getting stuck in. Just like that, thanks to a few sturdy tackles, we had our opponent’s full attention. The post-seaon trappings — an undefeated, unscored-upon top seed playing an elimination match against an 11 seed — quickly fell away. Just another Needham v. Wellesley tilt, at triple the normal stakes and intensity.
Clad in navy blue and gold, Needham bossed the game and Wellesley countered. This form held the entire first half, and it became clear we Raiders were every bit their equals up the middle, where it mattered, with my club teammate Eliot Putnam, just a sophomore, at sweeper; two of my fellow Hunnewell School products, Mark Sullivan and Mark Morris, at stopper and center midfield; and the indomitable Guido Verdelli up front. Square-shouldered, 6’1” and wicked fast, Guido wrought absolute havoc in the attacking third, winning the race to any ball played to either corner, then tracking back to help Morris and Sullivan destroy, possess and create.
Come halftime, Coach Davis said nothing. Literally nothing. The gravity of the occasion and opportunity had overwhelmed our 60-something, old-school, largely soccer-ignorant coach. The old man, whom we called Physical Phil (though never to his face), might have made his career with a victory in this game, yet the moment proved far too much for him. His assistant, Rick Copland — 20-something son of Wellesley United Soccer Club’s British-born founder, Rae Copland — did all the talking. He urged us to defend like madmen but to keep going forward, in numbers, on the counter. “We’re gonna get a goal,” Copey said calmly and assuredly, as the referees beckoned players back onto the field. “And when we do… They’re gonna shit themselves.”
As the second half wore on, Needham did indeed grow increasingly frustrated and tentative, sensing, perhaps for the first time all year, they were vulnerable — that giving up a single goal would terminate their glorious campaign.
Then, with 15 minutes left in regulation, Guido beat the sweeper to a long ball into the corner. He faced him up, beat him, and bore down on Needham’s massive keeper at a sharp angle. Verdelli managed to slip the ball under him, on the ground, into the far corner.
An unforgettable roar/groan went up from the largely Needham crowd, as Verdelli circled back toward his teammates with a single arm raised in exultation and defiance, Alan Shearer style (well before Shearer made it famous, it must be said). Our varsity brothers mobbed him, and we subs created utter pandemonium on our sideline. I remember watching the Needham guys on the field: They were beyond stunned. Hadn’t given up a goal all year! Copey called Guido to the bench: “Drop back a bit and play beside Sully as a second central defender.” This he did, and I remember the dude being everywhere the next 5 minutes: winning balls with his head and feet as the tension rose another notch with each clearance. Of course, without our man-child striker running down or holding up those clearances, back the ball came straight back into our defensive zone like clockwork.
The enormous crowd, by this late stage in the match, had intruded onto the field of play. The referees — in this primitive era of American high school soccer, they presided in pairs — were obliged to repeatedly coax this mass of humanity back behind the touch lines each time the ball went out of play, like a border collie working a petulant herd of sheep. The Rockets were dominating possession, but they were also becoming a bit frantic. A late-November gloaming had gathered, as the trains whizzed past, high above DeFazio on the commuter line. The fervor and uncertainty of the moment continued to build, but it wasn’t equally applied. The Rockets had far more to lose.
Then it happened: Needham halfback Mark Busa settled under an innocuous, high bouncing ball 25 yards from our goal, his back to Raider keeper, Dave Burzillo. Busa reared up in a way that could mean only one thing: bicycle kick.
According to form, no one challenged or intruded upon the maneuver. And Busa did pull it off, cleanly and elegantly, though not with a volleyed missile. Instead, aloft and horizontal to the playing surface, he launched a gently arching line-drive that caught Burzillo a few too many paces off his line.
For all intents and purposes, time came to a stop. The spheroid appeared to hang there, suspended in mid-air, a couple thousand eyes holding it above the human fray with the power of their expectant, collective gaze. Finally, the ball began its deliberate descent. Desperately scrambling backward and to his right, Buzzy suddenly realized he had no chance — one could see his desperate movements abruptly slacken into resignation and degrees of potential despair. Would the ball float over the goal or hit the crossbar? Buzzy knew the answer before any of us. Already on his hands and knees, he looked up to watch it graze the underside of the bar and ricochet down into the far corner of his net.
Now it was our turn to be stunned. The Needham players pig-piled on Busa with wild abandon; dozens of fans invaded the pitch to join in. Amid this mayhem, I recall Copey asking the ref how much time remained. Ten minutes.
Against the run of play, we nearly answered straight away when a striker of ours — George Gavris, known within the team as “Nature Boy,” for his uncanny resemblance to the aboriginal Australian in Bugs Bunny’s classic, if politically incorrect, “Hare Down Under” — slipped by the Needham defense and hit a low shot that grazed the outside of the near post before settling in the side netting. Three quarters of the crowd thought it finished in the net, but the refs quickly disabused them of this notion. The prospect of overtime loomed, but the air had gone out of us.
Then, with equal dispatch, a Needham winger beat a guy, raced down the right sideline and struck a hard, low, skittering shot to the far post. Burzillo clambered after the ball but couldn’t reach it. The hometown celebration proved far less elaborate this time. There remained but a minute or two to play.
It’s a terrible thing to score the first goal so late in a game, only to concede twice and lose. The range of resulting emotions is what makes these matches unforgettable — but such violent swings tend to suck the life out of a match. We kicked off and never threatened again. By this late stage, the encroaching crowd had effectively rounded each of the field’s four corners, anticipating the final whistle. Needham’s left back served a long, teasing ball down the sideline, right in front of our bench area and into the corner. I remember looking down there and thinking, “Where’s the corner flag? All those people are on the field…”
A Needham winger raced by our bench after the ball. Whereupon Copey calmly stepped out onto the pitch — and tripped him.
Forty years later, I’m still processing this incredible moment: of defiance, of competitive nihilism, of complete What-The-Fuckery. Curiously, I don’t remember how the refs reacted — if they penalized him or tossed him or even had the time. Instead, a final whistle blew and the crowd poured onto the field. I remember it flowing over and around our bench, now a small island in a chaotic stream of humanity.
Less than a year before, during the closing moments of the 1978 Gator Bowl, Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes did something eerily similar: He cold-cocked opposing linebacker Bob Baumann, whose interception had sealed a victory for Clemson. The incident ended Hayes’ otherwise legendary 32-year coaching career. In the post-match mayhem that afternoon at DeFazio Field, I watched Coach Loiter grab Copey by the arm. “If I’m coaching this team next year, you’re gone,” Loiter said to him.
“You heard that?” Loiter asked me during our 2021 conversation. Yes. I was standing right there. “Well, I don’t honestly remember what I said to him, in the moment. But that sounds about right.”
Epilogues: Physical Phil Davis, a confused and ghostly presence on the sideline all afternoon, would indeed retire come June. Loiter wanted the job and, as a dutiful JV coach the previous 10 years, he got it … At Wesleyan University, I played against Mark Busa twice, as he eventually matriculated at NESCAC rival Tufts. The first time, in 1982, I found him post-match and referenced this match and his bike. He just smiled and shrugged — perhaps because Needham went on to lose the 1979 Massachusetts Division I soccer final to Ludlow, 2-1 … With its central core intact, Wellesley High won the D1 state title the following year, 1980. That was Loiter’s first varsity team. His final team claimed a second state championship, in 1991 … Three years prior, the Wellesley High Red Raiders rebranded themselves as mere Raiders, trading in an aboriginal American mascot for a pirate … Copey proved was no Woody Hayes. He went on to coach elsewhere, for years: at Curry College, Natick High and adult leagues all over Eastern Mass. He settled in Concord and coached the youth leagues there, too. He reached out when my first soccer book, Generation Zero, was published, that summer of 2022. We’ve gotten together a couple of times since to tip a few, sign some copies and reminisce. That moment of madness? Never came up.