Real Madrid clinched their third consecutive Champions League title, the fourth in five years, by beating Liverpool 3-1 in the final, with Gareth Bale scoring two goals to lead Los Merengues to a convincing victory.
As I alluded to in a previous article, I believe that this victory makes the current Real side the greatest club team of all time.
However, that was not the biggest story of the game. That would be the dismal performance of Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius, who made two errors that both led to Real Madrid goals.
Even though Karius had put together a solid campaign up to the final to help the Reds reach their first Champions League final in 11 years, the German turned in a performance that will be remembered by everyone watching, but for all the wrong reasons.
To put it simply: on the biggest stage of club football, Karius choked.
He isn’t the first player to choke on such a stage, and he won’t be the last.
However, what will define him and his career going forward will not be this match in particular, but how he responds to it.
An excellent example of a player who choked when it mattered most, but bounced back to put together an outstanding career, was Roberto Baggio.
As the reigning World Player of the Year, Baggio entered the 1994 World Cup with plenty of hype. Throughout the early rounds of the tournament, he duly delivered on the hype, scoring five goals and leading the Azzurri to a final showdown against a Brazil team comprising superstars such as Cafu, Romário, and Dunga.
The match ended 0-0, and a penalty shootout ensued. As Baggio stepped up to take his penalty, he knew that if he missed, the shootout would be over, and Brazil would win the World Cup.
The Juve number 10 stepped forward and unleashed a shot that ended up settling somewhere in the stands. Like many before him, he, too, had choked when it mattered most.
However, he clearly rebounded well from this humiliating moment, as, in the subsequent 10 years from this game to his retirement, Baggio scored 96 Serie A goals – an impressive figure for a second striker and attacking midfielder hybrid, but even more so when considering that this period spanned Baggio’s age-28 to age-37 seasons. Today, Baggio is easily considered one of Italy’s top 10 players ever, and deservedly so.
On the other hand, another player who never truly recovered from a choke in a pivotal match was Andriy Shevchenko, in the 2005 Champions League final.
Once again, the situation was a penalty shootout. Shevchenko’s AC Milan team had already collectively choked in this match, having blown a 3-0 halftime lead against Liverpool. However, the Rossoneri had one final chance, as neither side had been able to score in extra time.
When reigning Ballon d’Or winner Shevchenko stepped forward to take his penalty, just like Baggio, it was a score-or-go-home situation.
Wilting under the pressure of the moment, Shevchenko shot a weak penalty which proved to be an easy save for Liverpool goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek, handing the title to Liverpool under improbable circumstances.
The moment seemed to mentally break Shevchenko, as he was never the same after the game.
Shevchenko would go on to play seven more seasons, between the ages of 29 and 35, when he would retire. In those seven seasons, the Ukrainian would only score 51 league goals, of which 28 were in a major league. For a centre-forward of Shevchenko’s calibre, that was an extremely disappointing statistic. In particular, during his time at Chelsea, he turned into a punchline of world football, scoring only nine league goals during his time there, despite his high transfer fee.
His precipitous decline can be traced back to that one fateful night in Istanbul.
Like Baggio, Shevchenko, and so many others, Karius has now also choked in an extremely important match. However, what is important is that he does not let this dismal display that lost Liverpool the Champions League define him or his career, and that he moves forward from it and emerges from the experience a better player. Otherwise, we may soon never hear from him again.