The Stories Behind Some of Football's Most Iconic Photographs

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportApril 2, 2020

Santiago Garces / Laurence Griffiths

Diego Maradona caressing the ball as six anxious Belgium players fan out in front of him. A tender post-match embrace between Pele and Bobby Moore. Andres Iniesta surrounded by a horde of Italian opponents at Euro 2012. Zinedine Zidane, head bowed, trudging past the trophy after being sent off in the 2006 World Cup final.

Great football photographs have the power to sum up a game, a tournament and sometimes even an entire career. The advent of smartphones has turned everyone into a photographer, but even in an age of night mode, Instagram filters and triple 12 mega-pixel cameras, a perfectly composed photo still has the power to cut through the noise.

Whereas the rest of us need only get our phones out to take a snap, football photographers continue to work in a way that has remained fundamentally unchanged for decades: crammed together at the side of the pitch, come rain or shine, and conscious that their ability to capture a single split-second moment will probably be the difference between a job well done and a bad day at the office. It is a job in which a moment's hesitation can ruin months of preparation.

Every now and then, a photographer takes a picture that transcends the game he or she is covering and acquires meaning that resonates with people all over the world. So how do those photos happen? And how does it feel when you peer through your viewfinder and find a moment of football history staring back at you?


Lionel Messi Rejoices After Barcelona's Remontada Against PSG (Santiago Garces)

Santiago Garces for FC Barcelona

It was the fifth minute of stoppage time at the Camp Nou, and Sergi Roberto had just scored the goal that completed Barcelona's astonishing Champions League comeback against Paris Saint-Germain in March 2017.

As the delirious goalscorer tore towards the corner flag, closely pursued by his Barcelona team-mates, Lionel Messi darted straight behind the goal. Club photographer Santiago Garces had positioned himself close by, anticipating that if Barca won, their players would want to celebrate with the fans. As Messi leaped on to an electronic advertising board and screamed his joy into the night sky, Garces got his reward.

"At the end, when Sergi Roberto scored, it was crazy," he told Bleacher Report. "I had my big lens, my 300, and I didn't see who'd scored the goal. Everybody was running to the corner with Sergi Roberto and [Gerard] Pique, and I saw Messi running behind the goal. When everybody was running to the left, I decided to run to the right. I ran to where he was, and I shot the picture."

Battling to hold himself steady amid the tumult of jubilant fans around him, Garces raised his camera and took a picture that perfectly caught the moment of communion between supporters and skipper. It shows Messi dead centre, the floodlit stadium behind him, a seething mass of supporters in front of him, with his right hand raised above his head in triumph. Hastily published on the club's Instagram and Twitter accounts, it flashed around the world in a matter of minutes.

"It went viral right away because Shakira and Messi's wife posted the picture," said Garces. "The day after, Barcelona called me and said, 'The numbers we're looking at for this picture, we've never seen numbers like this.' I was doing interviews for a whole month. It was crazy in Spain; it was crazy around the world because it's Messi. Argentinians went mad for the picture, and in Mexico they went mad because I'm Mexican."

A small version of the photo is the only picture that adorns the wall in Garces' Barcelona studio, and even when he looks at it now, he is struck by the serendipitous perfection of its composition. Not only is Messi right in the middle, but the viewer's eye is drawn towards him from all four corners of the image: by the cable connecting the goal net to its support post on the left, by the line of the stadium roof on the right and by the outstretched arms of two supporters in the foreground. One fan brandishes a scarf on which the year of the club's foundation, 1899, can be clearly seen.

"I really believe this picture was magic," Garces said. "On his left arm, Messi has the captain's armband. In some frames before this frame, he was wearing the Champions League armband, which is green and horrible. But someone pulled the horrible, green armband down and suddenly the Barcelona armband [in the colours of Catalonia] appeared. Everything was crazy in this picture. Even the flash makes it look mystical."


Marco Materazzi and Rui Costa Share a Moment (Stefano Rellandini)

When Inter Milan fans halted the second leg of their team's Champions League quarter-final against city rivals AC Milan in April 2005 by hurling flares on to the pitch, Stefano Rellandini's objective was to get a shot that encapsulated the scene.

Rellandini, who was working as a photographer for international news agency Reuters, felt the best approach would be to show one player from each team in the foreground, with the red wall of smoke in the background. When Inter hardman Marco Materazzi and Milan playmaker Rui Costa started chatting to each other in the middle of the pitch, he had the image he was looking for. But then something unexpected happened.

"To be honest, my idea was to have one Inter Milan and one AC Milan player together [in the foreground], with the focus on the smoke from the flares on the pitch," Rellandini said.

"I shot a couple of frames because Materazzi was really close to Rui Costa, looking at the smoke. Suddenly, Materazzi put his arm on the shoulder of Rui Costa for a few seconds, and when I saw that, bam. A couple of frames, no more than three. As soon as Materazzi put his arm on his shoulder, I thought, 'That's the picture.'"

Materazzi's spontaneous gesture of comradeship turned what would have already been a striking news picture into an image that reflected the bonds that underpin even the fiercest sporting rivalries. Over the years that have followed, Rellandini's snap has become synonymous with not just the Milan derby, but with passionately contested football matches everywhere.

"Photographers are always afraid that someone could have a better picture than yours," he said. "And in the Champions League, you have a lot of photographers on the pitch, so you don't know. You know when you have a good picture, but you can't be sure 100 per cent that it will be the picture of the match or become really famous.

"When one of your pictures becomes a symbol or something that everybody recognises, you feel proud of your work. You spend a lot of time covering football matches. It's freezing cold, it's rainy. There's a long queue before the match to get the best places beside the pitch. It's a stressful job. Most of the time, nobody cares about your job. Most of the time, it's routine pictures. But when something like that happens, it makes it all worthwhile."


Angry Fan Chews Over Brazil's 7-1 Humiliation by Germany (Laurence Griffiths)

BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL - JULY 08: An emotional Brazil fan reacts after being defeated by Germany 7-1 after the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Semi Final match between Brazil and Germanyat Estadio Mineirao on July 8, 2014 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.  (Photo by
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Few matches in football history have caused jaws to drop in the manner that Germany's 7-1 annihilation of Brazil at the 2014 World Cup did. For the host nation, it was a moment of national humiliation that stood on a par with Brazil's shock 2-1 defeat by Uruguay in the decisive game of the 1950 tournament, which had also taken place on home soil.

When the final whistle blew, Getty Images photographer Laurence Griffiths began to look for an image that would sum up the sense of desolation that Brazil's defeat had provoked. Scanning the crowd for forlorn supporters from his position beside one of the touchlines at Belo Horizonte's Estadio Mineirao, his eyes settled on one fan, leaning over a Perspex barricade, who seemed eager to attract his attention.

"I remember it really well," Griffiths said. "I was actually really annoyed with him because he was just one of those guys that really plays up to the cameras, but I couldn't avoid him. At the end of the game, there were a lot of genuine fans who were really upset, crying and all the rest of it. He saw me and was kind of playing up. I made a bit of a fuss of him, started taking his picture, then he got his flag in his mouth and started ripping it up and trying to eat it. I was looking for an image at the end just to sum up the nation's pain, and he obliged."

The picture of the fan, chewing on a yellow and green flag with a look of demonic intensity on his face, quickly went viral and would become one of the symbolic images of Brazil's moment of despair.

"Inevitably, you get a feeling," Griffiths said. "I've been doing it long enough to know when you get a decent snap. We send stuff immediately now—I can send stuff from my camera—so everything's out there seconds after you take it. You edit on the back of your camera, you pick the ones you want and off they go to a team of editors. They're around the world in seconds. It was quite amazing how quick that arrived on Twitter. It was crazy."


Brandi Chastain's Iconic World Cup Celebration in 1999 (Robert Beck)

More accustomed to taking pictures of surfers, Sports Illustrated photographer Robert Beck had covered only a handful of football matches by the time he was asked to provide support to two colleagues at the final of the 1999 Women's World Cup between China and hosts the United States at the Pasadena Rose Bowl in California.

As the game drifted towards a goalless conclusion in extra time, Beck had to be told by his assistant that the match would be decided by penalty kicks ("I don't know anything about soccer," he told Bleacher Report with a chuckle). Realising that he was at the opposite end of the ground to the goal where the penalty shootout would be staged, he set about lugging his cameras and equipment towards the other side of the stadium. Despite not possessing full, pitch-side accreditation, amid the general confusion that followed the final whistle he found that he was able to walk straight onto the pitch unopposed.

Whereas the other photographers, including his two Sports Illustrated colleagues, had taken up positions in each of the two corners, Beck plonked himself down directly behind the goal. With the shootout approaching, he was told by a security operative that he would have to move, but by the time he had finished packing up his equipment, it was too late.

"We had a lot of stuff, and we had to start getting it together again," Beck said. "By the time we were ready to go, the head security guy looked at me and said, 'They're ready to start kicking. You'll have to stay put.' So that's where my spot was. It was a mistake. I didn't know we weren't supposed to be there."

So, when Chastain converted the penalty that gave the United States the cup, Beck was the only photographer stationed behind the goal. As Chastain celebrated, whipping off her white team jersey to reveal a black sports bra and dropping to her knees, he took a photograph that would become one of the most famous images in sports history.

As he snapped away during the trophy presentation and the celebrations that followed, Beck had no inkling of the status his picture would one day acquire. Even when it appeared on the front cover of Sports Illustrated the following week, his overriding feeling was simply that he had taken "a nice picture" and done his job. It was not until a chance encounter with Chastain at a college basketball tournament in San Francisco some years later that he truly began to appreciate what his photo meant. When he introduced himself, she threw her arms around him and screamed.

"She was really emotional, borderline almost crying," he said. "And then she started talking, and that picture had a whole different meaning to her. She said, 'You don't understand what that means to thousands of little girls not only in our country but around the world. We're pictured as athletes now. We can be on the cover of Sports Illustrated. We can be strong female athletes. We can play sport like the boys do.'

"All of a sudden, that picture took on new meaning even to me. Before, it was a technical thing, and it was colour, and it was being sharp and [capturing] a high point of action. Now, there was this added dimension of the social importance of a photograph to other people. It really changed how I thought about my photography.

"And it was kind of luck of the moment. The right place at the right time. Actually, make that the wrong place at the right time."


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