As Aaron Lennon succumbed to a sore throat last Tuesday night that ruled him out of Tottenham’s Champions League quarter-final clash against Real Madrid, arguably the most important game in Tottenham Hotspur’s recent history, we take a look at other examples of players and teams whose performances have been controlled by unusual exterior factors.
While Lennon had strongly asserted on his Twitter page that his non-appearance was down to an illness that had begun days before the game rather than the sudden illness reported by large sections of the media, some other media outlets have questioned his ‘bottle’ and have suggested that maybe the stage of the competition and the intensity of the Santiago Bernabeu was all too much for the fleet-footed winger. Those that have questioned Lennon’s ‘bottle’ could look at his match-deciding contribution at the San Siro against AC Milan in the previous round where he ran the 70 yards before squaring for Crouch to score the winner, or his performance against Portugal at the World Cup in 2006 when he was arguably England’s best player.
However, there are some recent examples of players struggling to deal with the pressures and demands of first team club and international football. With the media spotlight surrounding the game at its brightest and most intrusive ever, the expectations placed on the shoulders of young players are as great as they ever have been, particularly with the financial rewards that accompany club success.
Bojan Krkic, once described by Frank Rijkaard as Barcelona’s ‘treasure’, is a prime example of how pressure and stress has had huge implications on the performances and career of a young player earmarked for greatness. Called up to the Spain squad aged just 17, after scoring a supposed 800 goals in 7 seasons (see Romario for more goals to games exaggeration) at the Barcelona academy and going on to perform well for the Barcelona first-team in the early months of the 2007-2008 season, things could not have looked better for the young Spaniard. All was not well in the Bojan camp however and in February 2008 just hours before he was set to become Spain’s youngest ever player Bojan suffered a bout of dizziness that forced his withdrawal from the squad and return to Barcelona. Bojan did manage to make his Spain debut a few months later, in the World Cup qualifier against Armenia, but still looked incredibly nervous and the authority and confidence that defined his performances at youth level were nowhere to be seen in front of a hostile Spanish crowd. Barcelona have shown great faith in him recently by handing him a new contract that lasts until 2015 yet there is an on-going sense of unfulfillment surrounding their number 9 after his remarkable burst on to the scene three years ago. As La Masia’s forgotten jewel sparkles intermittently, the standard of the players around him leaves him firmly in the shadows at the Catalan giants.
Another victim of the pressure of being involved in the Spain set-up is Sevilla’s mercurial speedster Jesus Navas. Despite possessing all the necessary talents to perform alongside such household names as Xavi, Iniesta and Villa, Navas’s appearances at international level have been restricted (just 11 in 7 years!) by the homesickness he experiences when away from Seville. When he was just 19, the Sevilla medical staff described one of his experiences as a ‘panic attack, the kind of depression that can affect players who are very young and come from a closed environment’. Such is the severity of his illness that there have been occasions when Navas has had to leave training camps even within Spain to return to his home in Seville, while the same ailment meant he rejected a move to Chelsea back in 2006. Between 2004 and 2009 Navas was officially retired from international football and it was only in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup that he made himself available for his country again. His first goal followed shortly afterwards, in one of the friendlies prior to the tournament and Navas went on to make a number of impressive cameos, particularly in the final against Holland where his pace and trickery stretched tired Dutch legs as Spain went in search of, and eventually found, a winner in extra time. It appears Navas is beginning to come to terms with his problems and Spanish fans, just like his beloved Sevilla fans, will come to adore him.
Now for a couple of examples of some teams that have struggled to perform for one reason or another;
West Ham vs Tottenham Hotspur, 7th May 2006
What might have been… If Spurs had won this game against their London rivals they would have finished 4th, above their even greater rivals Arsenal, and (debatably) more importantly would have secured them a place in the following season’s Champions League. The London Marriott Hotel kitchen staff however had other ideas. 10 players fell victim to a severe outbreak of food poisoning during the night before the game to such an extent that the then Spurs manager Martin Jol requested for the game to be postponed until his players illnesses had subsided. As it happened the game went ahead as scheduled, with Jol’s players visibly struggling throughout. West Ham won the game 2-1 in what would prove the key result in Tottenham’s battle with Arsenal for 4th place. It would be 4 years before Spurs finally performed in the Champions League, who knows where they might be now had some pasta not ended their qualification aspirations back in 2006.
Real Jaen vs Lucena, November 2010
To round off this unintentionally Spanish biased piece, I leave you with the story of Real Jaen, the Spanish Third Division side that recently held a sit-down protest during their game against Lucena after not being paid for two months. As the game kicks off, all 11 Jaen players sink to their knees, while Lucena sportingly pass the ball between themselves for a couple of minutes, while Jaen’s fans wildly applaud their players protest from the stands. The game eventually got under way and following a dull 0-0 draw, the first minute of the game was undoubtedly its highlight.
N.B. Don’t stay at the London Marriott Hotel in West India Quay