As football fans we tend to forget that the objects of our passionate attention are individual people just like anyone else. We tend to think in abstract terms such as ‘team’, or ‘club’ or ‘footballer’ and, accordingly, assign attributes that we feel should exemplify these things.
When our team loses, or certain players don’t perform to the standards we expect, we are quick to point out their specific failings and throw our hands in the air in disbelief shouting, "What were you thinking?" Even the best of the best are not allowed a single slip up.
As we head into the Champions League semi-finals, one step away from the biggest pressure-cooker of them all – the CL final, I’ve been thinking about what must go through our boy’s minds, how they maintain their professionalism, and how we continue to expect these mere mortals to face the challenges of dealing with champions league pressure.
The average age of the current club is just over 26 years. These consummate professionals are by all accounts, ‘kids’. To put it into some perspective, were they not multi-millionaire professional athletes, they could easily be someone barely out of graduate school living in a one-bedroom flat in the dodgy part of town stressing about their day jobs. They’d be bar-hopping on the weekends with their friends and spend their weeknights watching the latest Netflix series.
However, Real Madrid’s 26 year olds are multi-millionaire professional athletes. And as such, we tend to forget that they have many of the same impulses as anyone else their age. But aside from the Xbox/Playstation tournaments we occasionally catch them playing, we pretend they live in a world where 26 year-olds are supposed to be devoid of all normal mid-twenties challenges.
Granted most of the top footballers have come up playing in elite clubs, and are not strangers to the lifestyle, but the pressure they are expected to bear without blemish at such a young age is pretty incredible. They are expected to handle the pressures of performance alongside their stardom, luxuries their huge salaries bring, and the "untouchable" mentality they can feel.
Unfortunately, there aren’t really programs or support structures in place to help them cope with such pressure at a young age. A dear family friend of mine works for an organization that has been helping the NFL in the United States work with their young players to deal with the pressures they face. I unfortunately wasn’t able to find any such organizations for European football in time for this article, but will be pursuing this information in the future.
What it means to be a professional
Most of us get paid to perform some kind of work, and typically the expectation is that we conduct ourselves in a "professional" manner. For most of us, this doesn’t go any further than a) show up to work on time, b) get your work done as requested, and c) don’t act like an idiot in the office.
But what if instead, we were expected to work with and depend on a small group of people to increase profits of the company by 200%, get nominated for best place to work, win all the awards for the work you’ve done at the annual "Your Industry" awards beating all your competitors, be expected to not ever be caught in public doing anything but looking awesome even though reporters follow you around sticking cameras in your face asking you stupid questions, and know that if you ever mess up, your co-workers, clients, bosses and the press will absolutely vilify you?
I think maybe this helps put the degree of daily pressure Real Madrid players are under into perspective. The stature of the club, the pressure to win trophies, the insanely (and frankly ridiculous) Bernabeu fans, all combined with the pressure of having to be "on" every moment you are in the public eye, give me a little acid reflux just thinking about it.
But this is the every-day life that we forget Real Madrid players deal with. While they may become accustomed to pressure to some extent, or for the anomaly that is CR7, "use their hate to make him strong," it’s no wonder top players have trouble spells, dips in performance, or more glaringly in Benzema’s case, profound lapses in judgement.
The European Spotlight
If ever the stage were set, or the opportunity to shine under pressure, the Champions League is it. The best teams in Europe. The most coveted trophy. The hardest road.
Take the normal pressure of the weekly slog that is the march to a league title, and condense it into pressure-packed bursts. First, the group stage with the pressure to win the group for better picks. Then, the two-legged ties where, as we witnessed during the first leg against Wolfsburg, absolutely anything can happen.
The pressure to stay on point must be immense. Travelling to a distant city, for many for the first time, coming off tired legs from the last league match, and realizing what’s at stake would make any man tremble.
But we expect these lads to not only show up unshaken, but deliver flawlessly time and again. And they know it.
The first two parts of this article I could certainly draw some references and at least picture in my mind. But I’m sorry, I’m going to finish this post pretty much here, because I. Can’t. Even.
I cannot even begin to imagine walking out onto the freshly groomed and watered Etihad pitch tomorrow.
The bright, glaring lights that in just a little while will display every move they are about to make.
Highlight their greatest feats. Magnify their dreaded failures.
And then, when the final whistle blows, will the crush of defeat, the thoughts of the next day’s tabloids, the solemn look of fans and friends be what greets them?
Or instead, will they feel the swell of pride and the surge of victory? Will they have the raw, unbridled confidence, even arrogance that only a 26 year-old can have, that going back to the Bernabeu means the Final is theirs?
Without attempting to wax poetic, I think that perhaps, just as in most things involving other human beings, it’s vital to make sure we don’t forget that the other person is just like we are – hopes, fears, insecurities, frustrations, etc.
And perhaps, if we’re able to catch ourselves every once in a while in the middle of a match, recognizing that those who sweat and bleed for the White Shirt are a little more like us than we give them credit for, just maybe the connection to both losing and winning, and what being a fan is all about, might mean even more.