Will And Belief

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Football Psychology Sports PsychologyIt’s early in the second half of the Champions League Final, 2005, AC Milan, having assumed complete control, stroke the ball around, three goals to the good, victory assured.

Then, out of the blue, Steven Gerrard plants a looping header into the Rossoneri net. He hurries back to the centre circle, sensing a seminal moment. Four minutes later, as Liverpool draw level, his instincts are vindicated.

So, how to explain the phenomenon of Liverpool in Istanbul? How could a game, that was so one-sided, be so radically transformed? As ever, there are clues to explain this puzzle.

Reports of Milanese celebrations in the half-time dressing room would suggest that the Italians had forgotten two things; what had happened to them at The Riazor in 2004, and how fortunate they had been to get through against PSV.

Seemingly, they had become so intoxicated by their first half success that reason and reflection had vanished. They had expected, and were prepared for, a struggle. Suddenly, this was a victory that had become effortless.

They let their guard down and became slipshod. Remember Maldini’s slack pass which led to the first Liverpool goal. The apparent weakness of the opposition had seduced them and left them with the collective sense that no longer had they to maintain their intensity levels.

What they failed to recognise was that at 3-0, Liverpool were at their most dangerous. They had nothing left to lose and were forced either to capitulate or to find deep levels of will and desire. Milan failed to recognise that, behind Liverpool’s fragile shell, there bubbled a wellspring of strength, embodied by the cultural leaders, Gerrard and Carragher.

Cultural leaders are the individuals who anchor historic values and key principles: of the manager, the club and the fans. Cultural leaders will take personal responsibility for outcomes. They are a potent mix of intent and intensity, but it is in adversity that they reveal their true worth.

Adversity is the trigger for the leader to discover untapped depths of certainty and courage. It’s Roy Keane taking on Juventus, or Beckham against Greece.

It’s belief that enables the cultural leader to stand out from the rest and refuse to accept failure. It’s a profound human quality. Belief is the fuel that drives great sporting achievement, such as Roger Bannister’s breakthrough four minute mile, or Sir Steven Redgrave’s five Olympic golds.

In the presence of Steven Gerrard’s towering self-assurance, what had seemed impossible, became possible, then certain. His opening goal allowed what had been a mere germ to spread like a contagious virus throughout the whole team, and the indefatigable fans.

And Liverpool had a Twelfth Player, those fans, whose contribution to the turnaround is as merited as that of the cultural leaders. Within the unfailing hubbub, carried on the breeze, came the plangent voices of history, the urge to exorcise the grief of Heysel and Hillsborough, to let fallen friends bear witness to the resurrection.

Thus were the players taken to a place within themselves, a place where many would never have been. To Champions League victory.

Outstanding sporting achievements are memorable, not just for the compelling theatre that is played out, but because of the human qualities that are liberated. Liverpool’s six minute comeback in Istanbul was a further appearance in the human story of those trusted companions, will and belief.