When I played competitive Sunday League football, most of my appearances came as a substitute and I played in such a team that we were usually winning by the time I came on. Occasionally games would be tight by Sunday League standards – a couple of goals in it with 25 minutes to go. My manager would come over and ask if I wanted to go on. I asked what position I would be playing and he’d more often not say I’d come on to play in defence.
I got the stage where I’d be judging the game and would sometimes say to him that there was no point me playing in defence if I was coming on just to get some game time so he could charge me £1.50. My view was that, under those circumstances, I could only really make a mistake. Score or assist and we were winning anyway, concede some goals and everyone will wonder why I came on.
At school and college, I was a goalkeeper, which is a position in which mistakes are highlighted. Drop a catch, slip, miskick… They can all lead to goals when you’re the last line of defence. It’s not like these mistakes don’t happen to any other player on the pitch – they do, and perhaps more often, but they’re not likely to be so critical, so “uncorrectable”.
As the ball crossed the line to give Real Madrid a 1-0 lead over Liverpool in last weekend’s Champions League Final, Loris Karius turned to the referee. The young German goalkeeper then turned to the assistant referee. And back to the referee. His looks and his claims got more and more desperate as he tried, in vain, to find anyone who was able to fix the situation, to show him mercy.
Karius had just fielded a long ball up the pitch. He turned to throw the ball to Dejan Lovren only metres away. As he did, though, Karim Benzema (who had chased the punt up the pitch) stretched out a foot and diverted the throw in to the bottom corner of the net. It was the worst mistake to make on the biggest stage.
With 7 minutes to go, Gareth Bale let fly with a ferocious if not speculative long range shot. Karius positioned himself behind the ball and raised his hands to head height. The ball hit his gloves. That should have been that, but the ball somehow squirmed from his grasp, looping in the net.
As Bale ran to celebrate with teammates. Karius lay on his back, covering his head with his arm. He got up, only to sink to his knees moments later. At the final whistle, he went a step further, lying face down on the pitch, presumably hoping that he would look up and realise that it was just a bad dream.
Before the game, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp told the press that he had an agreement with his players: if they lose, it is his fault, but if they win, it is because of them. In this instance, he would be hard pushed to believe that, as is Karius.
The goalkeeper was picked up by his coach and brought back to the rest of his team, his head buried in his shirt. Sobbing uncontrollably, he walked to the fans, hands clasped together praying for forgiveness, occasionally patting his chest to emphasise the sincerity of his appeals.
Fans applauded him back.
Karius was signed from Mainz in the summer of 2017. He had a positive start to pre-season before getting injured, handing the first team shirt back to Simon Mignolet. Karius came back in to the side in the second half of the season and established himself as number 1. Performances were mixed with infrequent errors, but became better, drawing comparisons in the media with the rise of the Premier League’s best goalkeeper, Spaniard David De Gea of Manchester United.
In other words, Karius deserved his night in Kiev on the biggest stage. He deserved it because he was the best option, merited by his performances because he is a good goalkeeper. A good goalkeeper who made some mistakes.
On 10th November 2009, another German goalkeeper called Robert Enke left his home and his family, saying goodbye and saying that he was going to training. He actually drove for 8 hours, parked his car and stepped out in front of a moving train, committing suicide at the age of 32 after battling and, more importantly, hiding his depression.
In his book, A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke, author Ronald Reng describes how Enke was picked to play for the Barcelona in a cup game against third division opposition.
He could only lose … If everything went as planned, Barça would win 3-0 or 4-0 and no one would mention the goalkeeper. If it went wrong, he would get the blame.
Enke made a mistake and conceded a goal as a result.
Robert Enke stood there, his face pale, eyes lowered and didn’t say a word.
That spell at Barcelona triggered Enke’s first bout of clinical depression. Oddly, conversely, the devastating loss of his daughter helped Enke find his focus once more. However, at the height of his career, as he was expected to go to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup with the German team, his “black dog” bit him again, rendering him unable to even get out of bed. He denied that he was depressed to a German team psychologist, but he took his own life months later.
Our sportspeople are not superhuman. They are very much just human. Loris Karius has a blue eyed husky named Banksy and eats pancakes with banana and syrup for breakfast. He wonders whether to cut his hair or keep it long. He’s fortunate that his talent and hard work have put him in the privileged position that he can make a living from doing what other people love but can only dream about, for “their” club.
People make mistakes. By their very definition, they are not intentional. Yet some “fans” have no perspective, no ability to see actions as mistakes let alone put themselves in to someone else’s shoes to display the empathy that would make them human, and choose to confirm that inhumanity in notes of absolute to filth to wish the worst on the mistake’s perpetrator.
We must stop believing that our sportspeople are superhuman, impervious to mistakes or doubts or criticism or pressure. Instead we should support them so that they can take those mistakes on the chin and learn from them, just as you and I would expect from others if the mistakes were ours.