Champions of choke: countries that excel at falling short
For any sports fan the debate over the great chokers can be an emotive one but it is also inherently hypocritical. In general terms the label we place on the loser is countered by the fact that the receiver is, well, otherwise pretty bloody good at what they do, especially compared to us – ? But we're really not that rational about sport, are we? When you add in a dash of patriotism as well – that's just a recipe for misery or schadenfreude, depending on the way the result falls. So who are the hall of fame chokers in international competition?
It would be unfair to start this appraisal without making mention of my own homeland. Despite the self-sustained myth of being underdogs and boasting a well-stuffed trophy cabinet in cricket, rugby and Olympic sports, Australia has also managed some epic chokes. After heartbreaking losses at the final qualification hurdle for the football World Cups of 1998 and 2002, Australia had to effectively get the rules changed in order avoid similar defeats in the future. So they did, jumping from the Oceania qualification path to the Asian Football Confederation in the wake of qualification for the 2006 finals. It's hardly been smooth-sailing since, mind you.
Across the ditch in New Zealand, no amount of All Blacks dominance nor World Cup wins in the '87 and 2011 will ever completely erase the heartache of falling short as favourites in '95 and not even figuring in the final of '99 and 2003.
English international football has long been a byword for choking and not without reason once you get them into a penalty shootout. It's one of international sport's most fascinating and excruciating curses and .
The 1990 World Cup semi-final kicked things off in grand style with Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle the unfortunate two who missed. In 1998 it was David Batty and Paul Ince's turns, while the 2006 quarter-final shootout against Portugal remains forgettable for Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. At Euro 2004 David Beckham and Darius Vassell were joined together in ignominy and eight years later it was the Ashleys Young and Cole. Given all of the pain and suffering fans have endured in that time it would be unfair not to mention their success in the Euro 96 quarter-final shoot-out, which provided some redemption for Pearce. Even a broken clock's right twice a day.
No conversation about choking is complete without a thorough appraisal of the heartbreaking losses that have befallen the South African cricket team. Perennial leaders of ICC rankings and oft-fancied to take out major limited overs tournaments, the Proteas just can't find a way to win when it truly matters. To have it happen once is unfortunate, but failing to reach the final in any of the six World Cups they've featured in since 1992 just smacks of carelessness. Unless you count their 1998 Commonwealth Games gold medal (and I'm Australian, so I don't), South Africa's Champions Trophy win of the same year is their only major limited overs title since readmission. .
The history of US sports at international level has been written by the victors for the most part, but that obscures some of sport's truly great chokes. For the world's No1 ranked team to lose in a final is not unheard of but for the US Women's soccer team to fall short in the 2011 World Cup Final to Japan, .
In the world of golf, the less that's said about America's 2012 campaign the better. Taking a 10-6 lead into the final day but collapsed sensationally to lose 14.5 to 13.5. Jim Furyk was brought to the verge of tears after missing his final putt and losing to Sergio Garcia. Luke Donald bested Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson fell to Justin Rose and by the time Tiger Woods missed a putt on the final green to halve a point with Francesco Molinari, the cup was already as good as hoisted by Europe's captain, Jose Maria Olazabal. It was the largest final-day lead to be blown in the competition's 85-year history.
For self-described choker and British Olympic table tennis competitor Matthew Syed, the act of choking is, "triggered when we get so anxious that ." It's a theory that crops up over and again in . In essence, the conscious mind of the nervous bowler, batsman or penalty-taker manually overrides all of the thousands of hours of practice, the muscle-memory and athletic impulses and where consummate professionals turn to jelly, unlikely heroes can hold their nerve.
For all the time we spend talking about sport and thinking about it on deep and complex levels, it's ironic that the key to its players avoiding the dreaded choke might just be to think nothing at all. It's all in the head and it crosses every national border.