Poor Arjen Robben. Having missed a crucial penalty in Bayern’s crunch game against Dortmund in the final stages of the Bundesliga season, he redeemed himself at the Bernabeu, scoring a penalty against Real Madrid in the Champions League semi final. Cojones intact, but Tottenham fans might be wishing he hadn’t shown such courage. If he’d surrendered responsibility then, would someone else have been taking the penalty during extra time of the biggest game in club football? Would Bayern be Champions, with Tottenham assured of a place in the Champions League qualifiers? Robben banished the demons once, only to see them return more brutal than ever. If we see an unshaven Robben staggering out of a bar during the next few weeks, looking like shit, we should not judge him. He’s been slapped in the face by the cold hand of failure once too many in recent weeks. Give the man a break, he needs some god damn luck.
“It’s not about luck, Frank. Luck is the name losers give to their own failings. It’s about wanting to win.”
This line is spoken by the character Richard in the film Little Miss Sunshine. Richard is addressing his daughter, and behaving like a total helmet, but he has a point, kind of. The role of luck shouldn’t be overstated. A more clinical assessment of the facts from the Champions League final will tell you that Bayern Munich wasted some presentable chances to win the game. A penalty placed perfectly in the bottom or top corner of the goal is pretty much un-saveable. Anywhere else however, and you’re giving the keeper chance. Ah, but given the ridiculously short reaction time, the keeper has to move early and therefore ‘guess’ (finger quotes) correctly to get anywhere near it. So, the keeper was lucky, right? Yeah, but keepers spend hours practicing penalties, learning to read the penalty taker’s run-up, and they have coaches to analyse their opponents kicks. So, they’re not really guessing, but taking advantage of all that accumulated practice and experience. But, what if the taker miss kicks the ball? Enough already, you get it.
The point I’m clumsily trying to demonstrate is that the combination of luck and skill is what makes football so appealing. It’s why statistics in football can only ever tell you so much. Think of how Tottenham’s season has panned out. Having been one of the top three sides in England for two thirds of the season, they will be playing Europa League football next year. Their fate was sealed with Robben’s penalty miss, but the number of variables that brought them to this point is mind boggling. For example, cast your minds back to January, when Tottenham were inches away from beating Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium.
In the final minutes, Gareth Bale pulled the ball across to Defoe, who stretched, but without enough contact he failed to steer the ball into the empty net. A minute or so later, City were awarded a penalty for a foul on Mario Balotelli – a player who should earlier have been sent off for a stamp on Scott Parker that went unnoticed. City scored and won the game. If the pass had been better from Bale, if Defoe had been a tiny bit taller, or if the referee had seen Balotelli’s stamp, the outcome would have been different. We might have different Champions in England, and it might be Arsenal who just missed out on the Champions League.
Liverpool’s management and fans were derided for referencing the amount their team hit the woodwork this season, but when you’ve drawn as many games as they have, the margins between success and failure start to get very small. It’s why the best team doesn’t always win, but isn’t that the whole point? If the best team always won, it’d be the dullest sport in the world.
‘You lucky, lucky bastards,’ was the general refrain from fans in the aftermath of Chelsea’s success. But, of course they were. It’s a weak manager who looked back across a disappointing season and put it all down to bad luck, but only the most dishonest would dispute that you need a few crucial moments to unfold in your favour if you’re going to be successful, at any level. But what of Poor Robben, and all those like him who have blundered when presented with a shot at glory. A moment to haunt their dreams for eternity. We’ll finish with another quote from the film, and this time it’s Grandpa’s turn, comforting Richard, whose own dream has just been crushed:
“Listen; whatever happens – at least you tried to do something on your own, which is more than most people ever do, and I include myself in that category. It takes guts, and I’m proud of you for taking the chance, okay?”