It’s not always about winning in sports

The story of sport is also the story of the losers. For every victor, there are multiple losers. Triumph is only one aspect of sport, and not always the most interesting one.

Colombian Andres Escobar lies on the ground after putting the ball into his own goal against the U.S in the 1994 World Cup. Escobar was shot dead on returning to his hometown, Medellin.   -  Sportstar Archives

The story of team sport is also the story of individual misses, dropped batons, fluffed catches, chances not taken. But few acts have the finality of an own goal in soccer. When a fielder drops a catch, he can hope that a bowler will pull him out of the hole where he has gone to hide by dismissing the batsman soon after. Perhaps a mix-up will lead to a run-out and personal redemption. But an own goal is its own punishment, no matter if your team wins by a huge margin.

And yet. There are few things funnier than watching a talented young millionaire at the peak of his physical powers do what players at lower levels regularly do. You and me, for instance. For one brief moment as a catch is dropped or a self-goal is scored, we find ourselves the equal of the best in the world. We may not be the person most likely to head a ball into the goal in the quarterfinal of a World Cup to eliminate France. But we have been the person whose only goal in a match has allowed the opponents to win. Germany’s Mats Hummels has done both, the latter in the European Championships (Euro 2020) being played now.

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Germany's Mats Hummels looks dejected after scoring an own goal for France's first goal as Lucas Hernandez and Adrien Rabiot of France celebrate during the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Group F match between France and Germany on June 15, 2021 in Munich.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

The player feels embarrassed, foolish, shocked, guilty… increasingly guilty as the match progresses and its result is decided by that self-inflicted wound. “There’s no reproach for the own goal,” said German coach Joachim Low. But if Germany fail to qualify, Hummels will feel personally responsible. He will hold it against the earth for not swallowing him up as soon as he had scored. The winning goal — for his team this time — in the final on July 11 might see him smile again!

Watching the great Maradona miss a penalty or a Roger Federer put a simple forehand volley into the net helps us to understand ourselves better. We know we lack the enormous talent that sees these stars do impossible things as a matter of routine; the occasional mis-steps remind us of what we have in common. If the greatness is beyond our comprehension, the humanness is easily understood — they are like us and not like us.

Sadly, not all self-goals can be dismissed with a shrug and eventual redemption. Days after Columbia’s Andres Escobar inadvertently scored a self-goal against the US in the 1994 World Cup, he was shot dead for his mistake. Colombia was eliminated (US won 2-1), and perhaps huge amounts of drug cartels’ betting money went down the drain.

Escobar’s killer, a bodyguard of some members of the cartel, was sentenced to 43 years in jail, he served 11.

The story of sport is also the story of the losers. For every victor, there are multiple losers. Twenty three teams at the Euro 2020 will not win the title, 127 players in the draw will not win Wimbledon. Triumph is only one aspect of sport, and not always the most interesting one.

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