The Perennial Underachievers’ Club lost one of its most distinguished members this week. With Spain winning their first major trophy after 44 years of hurt, this only leaves England, Holland and Portugal sporting the tag ‘big tournament bottlers’.
Spain used to be notorious tournament chokers. It was one of football’s golden rules that Spain would flatter to deceive in the qualifying group but suffer stage fright when it mattered in the quarter-finals. But now we have to revise our sneering preconceptions. Last Sunday’s victory over Germany (of ‘never write off the Germans’ fame) has finally banished the ghosts of historic Spanish failure.
The notion that a football team are ‘chokers’ or ‘bottlers’ is used so frequently that we seldom pause to ask ourselves what it means. In the case of an individual sportsman it’s easier to understand. It’s a mental chink in their psychological armour. It means that, when the pressure is really on, their technique deserts them. The striker balloons the penalty kick over the bar. The batsman loses his patience and gets himself out. The tennis player’s first serve goes to seed. Call it bottling or choking. Call it Tim Henman Syndrome. It’s a phenomenon which is all too familiar to the British sporting public.
We can understand how individuals choke. We can even grasp how a team chokes. They lack the mental resilience and unbreakable self-belief that separates champions from the also-rans. But how can an entire nation be ‘bottlers’? Take the Spanish national football team, for example. Spanish teams are always technically good and capable of playing attractive football. The national team usually features big stars from Real Madrid and Barcelona; players who know what it takes to win domestic and European honours. And yet, when they pull on the red jerseys of La Selección, these players replicate the mental frailties of their forebears.
It’s difficult to explain why. How can different incarnations of the national team suffer a collective failure of nerve time and again? The Spaniards who lost the penalty shoot-out to South Korea in the 2002 World Cup were not the same players who failed in the Euro 96 shoot-out against England. Nor were they the same players who lost on penalties to Belgium in the 1986 World Cup. Different players, same outcome.