Spain finally shakes off the ‘bottler’ tag

Spain's victory in Euro 2008 means that only England, Holland and Portugal now languish in The Perennial Underachievers’ Club.

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.

Why has this happened? Does internecine strife between Castillians, Catalans and Basques undermine any possibility of team spirit? Is there an Iberian choking gene passed down from one generation to the next? Or is it something in the Spanish diet? Does a liking for manchego cheese, jamon Serrano, and oak-aged wines produce footballers without a winning mentality?

Of course not. It’s the psychology, stupid. Social psychology plays a huge role in sporting success and failure. Victory feeds self-belief; defeat eats away at self-confidence. A set of beliefs or myths, no matter how irrational, can have a decisive effect on performance. So, if you’re an English footballer taking part in a penalty shoot-out, you’re always weighed down by the memories of the past. The team’s sport psychologist has taught you how to ‘visualise success’. But, deep down, you don’t really believe you can win. In your head you keep seeing TV replays of the penalty flops: Chris Waddle and Stuart Pearce, Gareth Southgate, David Batty, Darius Vassell… These are the ghosts. They might be figments of your imagination but they are still real enough to haunt you. They’re still capable of making you shank the penalty.

It works the other way round, too. During Sunday’s final I lost count of the number of times Motty cautioned viewers not to ‘write off the Germans’. It’s one of the most well-worn clichés in international football but it also contains a strong kernel of truth. However poorly they are playing, German footballers believe that they can win. They have that all-important Siegermentalität (winner’s mentality). Equally, their opponents succumb to the myth of German invincibility. These beliefs might be based on bunkum notions of fate or destiny but they give the German team a huge psychological advantage. Although Turkey outplayed Germany in the semi-final, it was no surprise to anyone to see Joachim Löw’s team steal an undeserved winner at the death. Did the Turks, I wonder, really believe they could win?

Ultimately a myth will continue to resonate until it is debunked. The penalty shoot-out win over Italy in the quarter-finals dispelled at a stroke a whole host of Spanish jinxes and curses. Spain hadn’t beaten Italy in a competitive match for 88 years and had lost three previous quarter-finals on that same date – 22 June. Tomas Roncero, who writes for the Spanish sports paper AS, captured the national mood of deliverance: ‘Take that historic inferiority complex! Take that Spanish victimism! Take that Buffon and Cassano! Take that June 22 curse! Take that 88-year jinx against the unbeatable Italians! Take that pessimists! Take that disbelievers! Take that Tassotti! Take that Pagliuca! And long live King Juan Carlos of Spain!’

Spain’s victory over Germany finally put paid to the notion that the Spanish can’t hold their nerve on the big stage. On the eve of the game, German centre-half Christoph Metzelder suggested that Spain had psychological obstacles to contend with. ‘I think they have a bit of a complex about these tournaments’, said Metzelder. ‘It has taken them decades just to get beyond the quarter-finals. I know they have respect for us and that will be in the back of their minds when we play them on Sunday. They are an excellent side, but this is a big game and big games have their own rules.’ It will be interesting to see what happens next time the two teams meet in a major tournament. The Spanish no longer seem like chokers. The German aura of invincibility seems diminished. Maybe, touch wood, we can write off the Germans after all.

There’s a lesson here, of course, for England. Choking isn’t an intrinsic national trait. It’s an acquired habit; a set of beliefs that has taken root in the collective psyche as a consequence of past experience. And like all habits, it can be kicked. All it takes is willpower. All it takes is a few well-taken penalties and the myth is dead.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.

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