Sports crackles with stories of magnificent comebacks and come-from-behind victories. However, there is equal romance in the epic meltdowns. These are about dreams turning to nightmares, ambitions being cruelly crushed, and heroes being reduced to villains.
The most recent of these happened earlier in August, when fancied Barcelona, with Lionel Messi to boot, let Bayern Munich pump in eight goals against them in the Champions League semi-finals in Lisbon, Portugal. This wasn’t a defeat, a loss which the club that has won the UEFA Champions League five times, could shrug off easily. This was a disgrace, a breakdown of such gargantuan proportions that Jonathan Wilson in The Guardian termed it “a performance that became shameful in its ineptitude.”
It recalled a similar disintegration six years ago in the semi-finals of the World Cup when hosts Brazil were humiliated 1-7 by Germany at home. Halfway through, with the visitors up 5-0, the Brazilian crowd which had paid astronomical prices to be at the stadium, was applauding the Germans. After the first couple of goals the Brazilians seemed to be paralysed on the pitch, incapable of defending as well as attacking. On the day that it mattered most, the Selecao had simply choked.
Three decades ago an Indian team suffered the same fate in the finals of the Asian Games hockey tournament in New Delhi. Under the watchful eye of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and 25,000 raucous fans, the Zafar Iqbal-led team was drubbed by a similar scoreline, suffering the biggest shock defeat in its illustrious history.
It was another example of a collective team collapse, something that seems to occur in every major sport. In the 2017 Super Bowl, for instance, the Atlanta Falcons led New England Patriots 28-3 with just 18 minutes left to play. Unbelievably, they were completely overwhelmed after that and eventually lost 28-34.
Fear of failure, of letting down fans or worrying too much about the eventual outcome, all of these can be factors for great teams and sportspersons to choke on the big stage. Often focusing too much on the individual bits of their game and thereby shutting themselves to the bigger picture also leads to the collapse of a team.
Cognitive psychologist Sian Leah Beilock calls it “paralysis by analysis”, the phenomenon of over-attention to a specific part of the game. When her research team asked soccer players to pay attention to what side of their foot was contacting the ball, their performance was slower and more error-prone.
Sometimes it is the other way round, with teams already imagining themselves on the victory podium on the basis of initial success in a game. Something like that happened to overwhelming favourites, the West Indies against India in the final of the Prudential World Cup in England. Once they had bowled the Indians out for a paltry 183, Clive Lloyd’s hitherto all-conquering team assumed the trophy was theirs. When Vivian Richards fell, the rest of the team just disintegrated even as the Indians held their nerve.
The consequences of one such disaster can be huge for a team, or an individual sports person, since it often leads to a loss of self-confidence and even self-worth. Thus, while Barcelona has been on the decline for the last couple of seasons, their star player Messi seems to have lost his appetite to play for the club, and is looking for a fresh start elsewhere amidst calls for the remaking of the storied club.
The psychological scars of the Indian cricket team’s loss in that last-ball thriller in Sharjah in 1986, were such that for a long time it looked like a defeated team whenever it took the field against Pakistan. The West Indies too never seemed to recover from the shock loss against India in 1983. In the following nine editions of the World Cup, the team, which had won both the two previous trophies in 1975 and 1979, reached the semi-finals only once, in 1996.
There have been individual collapses as well, none more famous than Jana Novotna loss to Steffi Graf in the 1993 Wimbledon women's singles final after being on game point leading 4-1 in the deciding third set. Novotna though could be forgiven given her relative inexperience. What about Roberto Baggio, Zico, David Beckham and David Trezeguet, all men you would bet your house to net a penalty on any given day. Yet, when it mattered most each of them failed to score from 12 yards, condemning their nations to defeat in the biggest stage of all.
However, it is the collective collapse of a team like Barca that truly fascinates us, holding us spellbound even as the horror unfolds before our eyes.Sundeep Khanna is a senior journalist. Views are personal.