The Contradiction of Mistakes in Professional Football…

Mistakes are part of what makes us human. We all make mistakes. Mistakes can make us much stronger, it can change who we are and what we think, it can create self-confidence and empower as we take responsibility and learn from it.

Mistakes are in the same way fundamental to football. The legend Johan Cruyff famously said: “Football is a game of mistakes. Whoever makes the fewest mistakes wins.”

So why is it when Liverpool’s goalkeeper, Loris Karius, made two incredible mistakes in the Champions League final handing the win to Real Madrid, he faced the response he did – including death threats! – and he now finds himself on loan at Beşiktaş?

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We accept that mistakes are part of life, so that means they are part of football, but can they afford to be part of professional football?

By this, I mean with all the money and importance attached to winning such a prestigious competition such as the Champions League – where clubs are often run by rich business people wanting a return on their investment, which you can get by doing well in the Champions League when looking at the prize money – can players, often paid tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds a week to do a job make such significant mistakes as Karius did?

As I saw many on social media say when it happened, if they made the equivalent mistake at their own workplace they would likely face the sack or at the least disciplinary action. I remember at the time feeling really sorry for Karius but equally finding it hard to ignore the fact that he is paid £25,000 a week to do a job he failed to do in the most important game of his career!

This then creates the question: should being a footballer be considered a job in the first place? It makes us critically consider the effect of increasing amounts of money in the game and how this affects people’s expectations of people playing the game. The pressure this places on people such as Karius to perform and not make mistakes is immense, and I really don’t know how they cope the way they do. Given Karius doesn’t seem to have started too well at his new club either, maybe the effects of these mistakes are going to be career-defining for him.

At AFC Unity, we emphasise the importance of mistakes and how they can be valuable lessons and help you grow as a player and as a person. It’s something professional sports psychologist Dan Abrahams speaks a lot about. But missing a penalty or letting in a howler at grassroots, when you are playing solely for your love of the game, is different to making a mistake that costs you and the people around you money, prestige – and also results in weeks of media abuse. If we make a mistake at grassroots, people can be annoyed, feel sad about it, but ultimately we know there are more important things in life than to worry about that one mistake, and also the ramifications aren’t that bad, as it’s a game that you can’t always win. Can the same be said for professional footballers who have so much more riding on it than we can even imagine!?

Of course, the higher you go the better you are assumed to be and thus the less mistakes there are expected to be. But football being what it is, there always will be mistakes! The problem is that we face a contradiction between expecting perfect performances because the players are paid lots of money to fulfil a job but then equally knowing that sport is a game of mistakes. We can’t stop mistakes from happening in football without turning players into robots; players don’t set out to make mistakes, and also the drama caused by mistakes are partly why we love the game so much!

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