Posted by: jowanderer | May 23, 2008

Lesson of John Terry’s penalty misadventure

May 23, 2008

Lesson of John Terry’s penalty misadventure


Sooner or later you must find yourself standing before the world exactly as you are. The processes of life will strip you of your pretensions and your conceit and leave you with all the awkward bits you hoped no one would notice. You are forced to stand naked, bereft of self-image, without the support of a personal mythology. The world sees us for what we are and for just about everyone that is a good deal less than we had hoped.

If that rule works itself out in real life over extended periods of time, in sport it can happen in the blink of an eye. It can happen in the fraction of a second it takes to put a boot to a ball and the person unwittingly exposed must pay the penalty for the rest of his life.

There’s many a slip twixt cup and lip and many a slip twixt boot and grass, as John Terry has to accept. I am no great lover of the penalty shoot-out, but if you have sufficient cruelty in your make-up – in other words, if you are an average human being – you cannot fail to find a hideous but fascinating revelation of character every time football stops being football and starts being Russian roulette.

The way of the shoot-out is to seek out not heroes but fools. More than any other device in sport, the shoot-out seeks only to belittle and diminish. There were three penalty misses at the end of the Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea and all three were deeply instructive of the hopes and illusions we had built about the penalty-takers.

Let us take them in order. The first to miss was Cristiano Ronaldo. All right, a marvellous season, a tally of goals rising to an impressive 42 with his header in open play in the final. But all the same, many suggested that his designation of greatness was premature.

Consistency is only a part of it. Come, let us see if he can take on this single great occasion and dominate it. Some saw such a demand as carping and unfair; most of us genuinely wanted to see what he was made of. Ronaldo’s vanity and love of trickery are essential parts of his talent. His delight in making a show of himself is sometimes a matter of considerable courage, but it can also display a weakness. And on Wednesday night the weakness was what he revealed to the watching billion-odd.

He took his penalty with an absurdly exaggerated stutter in the run-up. It was a penalty of a man convinced of his genius and, crucially, of the infinitely lower status of those around him.

Trick penalties are affectations, training-ground gimmicks, and invariably those who bring them out for serious action live to regret it. Principal among these is Gary Lineker, whose daft little chip-shot kept him for ever one away from Sir Bobby Charlton’s record as top England goalscorer. Ronaldo was undone by vanity. The trick was an unworthy thing. It betrayed a truth – that deep down the man prefers image to substance.

It seemed that Ronaldo’s miss would be decisive, that Chelsea would put up a full book of five. They had, after all, four out of four when Terry stepped up to take the kick that would win the European Cup. JT! John Terry himself! Who could doubt that he would prevail? The great leader, the man you can rely on; it was like dad coming in to make sure that everything was all right. Rest easy, Terry’s here.

But no. He slipped on impact, his standing foot sliding away and the ball ballooning wide via the outside of a post. Neither he nor anyone else wearing blue could believe it had happened. Surely it was the cruellest luck.

But it wasn’t. After all, no one else fell over. Terry was leaning back as he struck the ball, his weight all behind him instead of being over the ball. He fell because, at this defining moment of his life, his technique failed him. Which is another way of saying that his competitive nerve failed him. We will have to review our notion of Terry as the man of iron, the ultimately unflappable professional, Mr Dependable, the human rock. With sudden, dreadful frailty he turned triumph into sporting disaster. It is a revelation of his fallibility that will come as a shock to him.

David Beckham has the same fault and it brought the same result. He was also too much in love with playing the leader when he was captain of England. He loved the title of leader more than he liked leading men, that was the truth of it. He also took a crucial penalty and missed, costing England their chances of advancing in the European Championship of 2004.

Terry’s view of himself as the leader took a heavy blow with his miss in Moscow. With one slip his aura of imperturbability has gone, his reputation for ever damaged. We will never look on him in the same way again; and neither, perhaps, will he.

Nicolas Anelka completed what Terry had begun for Chelsea, his penalty obligingly and weakly struck so that Edwin van der Sar was able to pick off the save that won the competition. Hands up all those who, even before the events of Wednesday night, would be happy to have Anelka take a penalty for your life. Hmm, thought as much.

Anelka conducted himself through extra time, as through all matches, with an air of slighted genius. He is a Beaumont or a Fletcher who thinks he is Shakespeare and cannot understand why the world has failed to recognise him for what he is. He has all the loyalty of a labrador at a children’s party; whoever drops the biggest crumbs will have Anelka at his feet.

It is significant, perhaps, that Anelka is the only signing made by Avram Grant since he took over from José Mourinho at Chelsea. That is the way Anelka habitually rewards those who go in to bat for him. Every manager thinks that he will be the one to get the best from the Frenchman and every manager fails. It was commitment that was lacking in Anelka’s effort. He couldn’t, at bottom, force himself to believe that it really mattered.

And that is the way it must always be with penalty shoot-outs. It is a device to bring out the worst in people, the worst in football. They have their being in the world of drama and the revelation of character. But it is one of the founding truths of sport: you don’t reveal the character that you wished you had or that you thought you had. You reveal the character that you actually are. And there is nothing crueller than that, in life or in sport.


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