Football is a funny old game. One minute your team looks like they have a match or a league title in the bag, the next it can escape their grasp. The term ‘choke’ is synonymous in sporting circles with people or teams that are in a commanding position but suffer a meltdown mentally, losing their composure and consequently the match or competition. With the United States choke against Panama in the Gold Cup fresh in the memory, I have decided to look at some of the famous footballing chokes over the years.
AC Milan, Champions League Final 2005
The Champions League final is the biggest stage in world club football and AC Milan and Liverpool contested the 2005 final in Istanbul, Turkey. The game was a story of two choking sides, firstly Liverpool were the team to freeze up as they were overawed by the occasion and let in a soft goal in the first minute to veteran Italian defender Paolo Maldini. From there Rafa Benitez’s team conceded two more in the first half, with Kaka the architect and Argentine striker Hernan Crespo the executioner. Half time; Liverpool 0 Milan 3, it looked like it could get embarrassing for the English side. However choking can be infectious and the Rossoneri caught the bug in the second half, as Steven Gerrard inspired his side to fight back and the Italian side capitulated under the pressure of being 45 minutes away from European glory. Goals from Gerrard, Vladimir Smicer and Xabi Alonso saw the match finish 3-3, go to penalties and it was Milan’s darling Andriy Shevchenko who eventually crumbled under the pressure and missed the decisive penalty, giving Liverpool the Champions League title.
Bayern Munich, Champions League Final 1999
Manchester United and Bayern Munich contested the 1999 Champions League final in the Nou Camp, Barcelona, in what would be a prime example of the footballing choke. In an end to end match the German side started the brighter, and deservedly took the lead through a Mario Basler effort after only six minutes. United attacked well but the German side had key chances to win the game by getting the decisive second goal; firstly Mehmet Scholl hit the post and then Carsten Jancker struck the crossbar with an overhead kick. With time almost up, Die Roten started to defend and retreat, looking to protect their precious goal advantage. Enter substitutes Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. In injury time Peter Schmeichel came forward to attack a United corner, and in a me-lay in the German box Sheringham managed to convert a poor clearance and give The Reds parity. However the best was yet to come as less than thirty seconds later Solskjaer toe poked home the winner following a Sheringham headed effort. Totally capitulation and a great football choke achieved by Ottmar Hitzfeld’s team in three minutes of injury time.
Tottenham, vs Manchester United, September 2001 and April 2009
Tottenham took on English Champions Manchester United at White Hart Lane on Saturday September 29th 2001, with much anticipation around the London club. In a barnstorming first half performance by the home side, goals from Dean Richards, Les Ferdinand and Christian Ziege gave Spurs a 3-0 lead at the break. North London was full of energy. This could be the start of something big for Glenn Hoddle’s men. Sir Alex Ferguson and United had other ideas as five second half goals from Andy Cole, Laurent Blanc, Ruud van Nistlerooy, Juan Sebastian Veron and David Beckham broke Spurs hearts and the game ended 5-3.
Almost eight years later and Harry Redknapp took his talented Tottenham side to Old Trafford to lock horns with The Reds, and in an attacking performance in the first half the London club found themselves 2-0 up at half time with goals from Darren Bent and Luka Modric. Redknapp will have urged his team not to solely sit back and defend, to have belief in themselves and to go and win the game in his half time teamtalk, but instead his team choked and again conceded five second half goals to Cristiano Ronaldo (2), Wayne Rooney (2) and ex-striker Dimitar Berbatov, with the game finishing 5-2 to United.
Chelsea, vs Arsenal, October 1999
Fourth placed Chelsea hosted second placed Arsenal at Stamford Bridge in a highly charged match on 23rd October 1999, with local bragging rights and the Premiership title up for grabs. Arsene Wenger had started to mould the Gunners team into his own, an had signed Nigerian striker Nwankwo Kanu from Inter Milan in February 1999. In the match Chelsea took the lead through Norwegian striker Tore Andre Flo on 39 minutes and Dan Petrescu gave The Blues a 2-0 advantage on 51 minutes. The chant of “we want five” rang around The Bridge from a euphoric Chelsea support. In a wet and windy day, Kanu stepped up and got one back for Arsenal on 75 minutes, slotting home a miscued Marc Overmars shot, and the home side, and their fans, became slightly edgy. Kanu shocked the home faithful with seven minutes remaining as he drove home an Overmars cross, but the African striker still had more to come. In the last minute of the game, Kanu closed down a clearance and found himself close to the cornerflag, confronted by home keeper Ed de Goey, who had rushed out of his goal. The lanky striker avoided de Goey’s sliding tackle and converted from the tightest and most impossible angle to give the Gunners the match 3-2, with Chelsea in despair.
Real Madrid, 2003-2004 La Liga Season
In the 2003-04 La Liga season, Real Madrid had a star studded team full of world beaters, were champions from the previous season and followers at the Bernabeu had Ronaldo, Beckham, Figo, Roberto Carlos and Zidane to surely lead them to a second consecutive title. This looked very likely, as by the end of February Los Blancos were eight points ahead at the top of the standings and looking for the treble. However a four month choke by Carlos Quieroz’s side saw them lose the Copa del Rey final to Real Zaragoza, get kicked out of Europe at the hands of Monaco and lose their grip on the domestic title. A loss in El Classico and a 4-1 home defeat to Real Sociedad on the last day of the season saw Valenica lift the title, and the Galacticos finish fourth behind Barcelona and Deportivo La Coruna.
Newcastle United, 1995-96 Premier League Season
Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle side of 1995-96 were labelled ‘The Entertainers’, as the Toon amassed a quality side with the likes of Les Ferdinand and David Ginola in their ranks. Keegan’s men dispatched all in front of them and rushed into a 12 point lead at the top of the Premier League. The Geordies had finished second a couple of years earlier, but for the St James Park faithful this would be the season of glory. However Keegan’s men fell victim to a run of inconsistent form and perennial strong finishers Manchester United caught Newcastle up, and won the league from under their noses. Newcastle have fallen from grace since, and the choke of 1996 has significantly impacted upon the team’s fortunes.
The old cliches of ‘it’s not over til it’s over’ and ‘it’s a game of two halves’ spring to mind when reminiscing about some of the great footballing chokes, and it shows that a team must be mentally prepared as well as physically and tactically to succeed at the highest level.