People who don’t like sports are difficult to understand. They stand there, noses arched toward the heavens and assert that sport is “boring,” that “they don’t understand why people get so worked up about silly games.”
The biggest reason those sorts of people are so difficult to understand is because sport is human achievement. You can’t justifiably be amazed at the endeavors of a giant brain such as Stephen Hawking or Bill Gates, then purport to be bored by the likes of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. On the human canvas writ large in a way that is impossible for mere mortals to comprehend, they inhale the same rarefied air, that scent of the absurd.
Sports is one of the most human things that we do. Strip away the untold piles of money, the egos, the misguided hero worship and pursuit of baubles slathered in precious metal of various kinds, and you’re left with humanity’s highs and lows — success and failure. Some days you are magnificent at your job. Other days you are poor in a way that leaves you sitting in your car or on the train, wondering what the hell happened. In that essential way you are no different than Messi, Ronaldo or any other great of any game you can think about.
You do your job, you know your job and at the root of it all is confidence.
Nobody really knows where confidence comes from, why some people have it and some don’t. Why the average-looking person can stroll up to a supermodel, start a conversation and wind up in a tabloid under a headline, “HIM?!”
Many argue that Tiger Woods didn’t suddenly stop knowing how to play golf, but than an essential element of what made him a great golfer, confidence, was eroded in a miasma of mea culpas and weakness, a Wallenda grounded and suddenly everything was a mess.
Confidence is more than belief. Everyone believes. Is confidence knowledge? We see it all the time, players called “confidence players.” Earnest supporters suggest that because a coach took away someone’s confidence by not playing them enough or at all, that essential quality has been eroded.
It isn’t that base quality called arrogance, because not all accomplished athletes are arrogant, even as there are many who construct these psychological edifices as a wall against that little voice, somewhere in there, that says things most of us are used to hearing. “You can’t do that.” “Too far.” “You just aren’t that fast.”
A friend ran a 2:32 at the Boston Marathon, and said that he could have gone faster. Asked why, he said that he didn’t really know he could go that fast, that he felt that good, until the last miles. That’s something more than knowledge of self, something more than the visualization exercises people do, or looking in a mirror somewhere and growling at yourself. Messi doesn’t do that. Jordan didn’t do that. They know, and that knowledge is the most elusive part of sporting greatness, that crazy sort of psychic sauce that everyone, in every last thing that they do, strives to find. That is what makes sport so universal, something that even the haughtiest of us should be able to understand. Banging out that term paper, that stroke of genius that generates the killer app, the idea that makes a problem suddenly soluble. None of it is any different, any more or less noble than what a person, muscles straining against any notions of anything remotely approaching ordinary, nails in performing a task flawlessly.
There isn’t any fear in greatness. Whether a jazz trumpeter is reaching for that note he has missed the previous 9 times but, elevated by the audience and the ensemble, a feverish grasp is extended. It isn’t that failure isn’t an option, but rather that is isn’t a consideration. That is the magic of confidence. Talent? No. Great players who have dominated games like colossi haven’t necessarily been the most talented, or the most physically gifted. What makes them mutants is the idea that they have no idea they will fail. It never occurs to them.
In an NBA basketball game, Michael Jordan, after an opponent had been trash talking him, said “This one’s for you, baby,” and sank a foul shot with his eyes closed. On national television. It is one of Jordan’s most legendary, most iconic accomplishments. It didn’t bring a championship, wasn’t a game-winning shot, wasn’t anything except a great player showing the stupefying confidence that it takes to exist on a plane that no other player can consider.
Bojan Krkic is plying his trade in Stoke. He has physically matured, a man in the diminutive body of the flitting wonder boy that he once was, and an example of the ultimate confidence player in many ways. He wasn’t the same player after he pushed that header wide against Inter Milan in that fateful Champions League semif-final. Before that, he was a player whose quality shone so brightly that his coach benched the most talented striker on the planet in favor of a runt who barely reached Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s breastbone.
Krkic danced around the pitch in that way that makes you wonder if a player has the gift of foresight, as Ibrahimovic fumed like Achilles in that slave girl-induced rage. He scored goals, solidified his place, and then came That Header. No matter how many times you watch it, the same conclusion is reached: How did he miss that? Someone could tell you scientifically, that the way a fast-moving ball bounced off a head … hair gel … a cowlick that affects flight … there are any number of things that could have happened, but the simple reality is that he missed a header that would have elevated a team from, potentially, great to supernatural.
Some might speculate that he wasn’t the same after that header because the audibility of the voice that every person, every athlete, every everyman has, got just loud enough to reduce confidence to mere belief. Dancing on the crazy edge of maximizing performance becomes just a bit more difficult. You feet slip and down you go, down the pecking order and to Roma, where you aren’t the same player because you don’t have the same confidence, even if you have the same talent. It’s all different now because there is something eating at you.
Lionel Messi is the greatest player that anyone has ever seen play this game, but even superman has kryptonite: penalty shots. Messi has missed a remarkable number of them for a player who scores goals that make angels sing. He does the impossible so routinely that you wonder what it is about him, facing a single player rather than a phalanx of defenders, a stationary target amid a world of glorious possibilities and angles all created from the whole cloth of genius, that turns him into something ordinary, something human. He can run through 3 defenders, make one of the best defenders in world football fall down then out think one of the best keepers in the game, all in a few seconds.
But he can’t knock a simple shot past a goalkeeper, when all he has to do is run up and hit it. Do penalty shots exist in a walled-off annex in Messi’s brain, a place that isn’t allowed to affect the rest of his craft, the “Uh, oh” that comes only when the world is perfectly still and he is facing the thing that he suddenly can’t face.
His most recent miss, against Athletic Bilbao, was almost majestic in its low quality, like a god deciding he will stumble down the mountain instead of floating, to give the mortals a show. He almost strolled up to it and struck, a medium-hard, low shot that Gorka Iraizoz probably could have just kicked away and then glared, even as he dove, rose to his feet and exulted, enough to show delight but not so much that Messi would have been angered.
Messi, after the shot, kicked at the turf in an almost childlike pique, the one thing that mars his perfection having reared its head yet again, a reaction almost like the “Aw, man!” of affirmation rather than the rage in the wake of expectation.
In the wake of the match, a piece was written that dared to muse whether Messi was still the automatic penalty taker, an article that teased with its headline then ultimately, like Iraizoz, chickened out as if afraid to anger the deities.
Great players aren’t necessarily good at penalties, that spot that gives them nowhere to hide, almost as if they prefer the world to be in motion, this series of puzzles to solve on the way to affirming what everyone already knows about them. Solving a puzzle that I have time to think about? Where’s the fun in that? I need three defenders, and a fourth one grabbing at my jersey while the keeper charges at me. Left on their own in the stillness that always descends upon a stadium just before the penalty is struck to too isolated, too still.
It’s at those times that ego can augment confidence. Ibrahimovic wants nothing more than for the world to look at him, it seems. His penalty strikes are these majestic rockets that seem to leave a contrail of fire. Keepers make half-hearted dives at them, understanding that even if they got a hand to it, force and ferocity would giggle at them. He doesn’t strike the ball as much as he smites it, and turns away often before it even slashes at the back ot the net, arms raised, face saying “Of course.” Ibrahimovic isn’t the mind-bending attacking force that Messi is, but what culer doesn’t wish we could blink him in to take penalties for Barça, the ultimate ringer. Mon oncle, de Paris … voila.
Hucksters, con artists, think of confidence as a game, something they are selling. They have to use things, create the illusion of trust, selling you confidence in them, which enables the boondoggle. But even in athletics, there is something of that mental shell game as players who we trust, who we believe in, sell us that confidence, that feeling that they and only they are The One. Messi walks up to the spot. Nobody else even considers taking a penalty. Of course that is reserved for the greatest of them all, The One.
He once let Neymar take a penalty, and all of that Brazlian flair, shot-making prowess and flat-out genius failed, and was stopped. What does it take? Or is it that their confidence is so great that it never occurs to them that their shot will be stopped, that it almost doesn’t matter what they put up there. Or do they think so much that they out-think themselves, opting for something like the trickster, like the fedora-wearing tout at the bus station flipping cards around. When you can do anything, what do you choose to do?
There is no player in world football who inspires more confidence in his devotees than Messi with the ball at his feet. It’s money. Even if a goal doesn’t happen, something good is going to. Bet the house on it. It’s those quiet moments that we, and he, become as vulnerable as he seems to be, and it’s at those times that confidence well and truly becomes the game that it is, the fleeting thing that dominates, that controls and alters. It reduces boy wonders to European vagabonds, team shopping as newlyweds look for houses. It reduces coaches to masses of uncertainty, reduces the greatest player in the game to some kid in the park who has missed again.
This is ultimately why sport is so engrossing, why we love the game and why it is so unfathomable that anyone doesn’t. It’s life. Everyone has done something that requires confidence, that unshakable something that requires that thing beyond belief, beyond faith. It’s human, as human as the beauty and failure that make sport everything that we are.