In a world of spectrums, sports complies to a firm binary — the winner and the loser, the champion and the challenger, the bride and the bridesmaid. This is an open letter to the most dominant losers in sporting history: those who came as close to bending and blurring the binary as one could strive to, prior to having “failure’s” empty and harsh commiserations slap them squarely in the face.
Catching the bouquet.
For just a temporary moment on Sunday you might not have been naïve in believing that, at the culmination of a miraculous week brimmed with footballing resurrections, another blindsider was unfolding at opposite ends of the country in front of our split-screened, crossed-eyes.
As Mane struck in the north, Brighton’s Glenn Murray staked his claim as the less than glamorous assistant to one final act of outrageous insanity in the south. The twenty-nine year curse, it appeared, was slipping as red scouse smiles and rosy sunburnt cheeks began to thaw Liverpool’s Premier League trophy cabinet. The lonely bridesmaid finally held the silvered bouquet in her fingertips.
But it is the grasp of a finger, just as with the slip of a foot, that ultimately separates the euphoria of victory from the agonising wonderings of if and when. Sergio Aguero levelled in seconds; the trophy began to slip. Laporte struck some 10 minutes later; the magic it appeared was jilted.
Pep’s “noisy neighbours”, on this day, would prove to be more the silent assassins as they stabbed searing blade after searing blade into the blooded red chests of the Kop. Upon Riyad Mahrez’s second half jink and slot, the elusive bouquet was ripped from sweated red palms once more. A fourth and fatal blow from Ilkay Gundogan crowned City champions as the lung-busting title race had reached its resounding conclusion.
There are brides and there are bridesmaids.
While a Champions League victory on 1 June might prove to silence some of the melancholic wonderings of ‘if only’, it will not detract from the fact that the Merseyside club may well go down as the most beautiful bridesmaid ever to attend the yearly shindig that is the Premier League. 97 points; +67 goal difference; just one singular loss; joint-golden boot winners; but second place. Liverpool, staggeringly, would have hoisted the Premier League trophy in 25 of the 27 seasons since 1992. Their marathonic, yet fruitless, sprint towards second place will go down in the ages as one of the most dominant losing performances in footballing history.
The Merseyside club may well go down as the most beautiful bridesmaid ever to attend the yearly shindig that is the Premier League.
The top two were so far in a league of their own, breaking Premier league record for points (195) and wins (62) as a combined champion and runner-up, that those less tribalistic among us might have shed a compassionate tear for Klopp’s men as they staggered up the Anfield tunnel to a chorus of “we shall not be moved”. They say all is fair in love and sports — but there was little commiseration available to stem the agony of falling short after a gruelling 38 game season.
Arsenal’s ‘invincibles’ of 2003/04 have been rightfully immortalised in contemporary footballing history as the standard of excellence for a Premier League season. And yet, maddeningly, this Liverpool team, albeit in an age of ludicrous transfer fees and more expansive squads, topped the Highbury team in points and goal difference, and came within one game of accomplishing the other-worldly feat of an undefeated season themselves.
Yet as one great team has been immortalised, the other’s greatness will likely be confined to the doldrums of sporting history — perhaps only emerging on occasion in the middle rounds of pub quizzes up and down the country. This, as unjust as it may seem to be, is the power of winning.
Professional sports, irrespective of what you were taught in primary school PE, was, is, and always will be about getting to the top of the hill. It will always be about finding a way to ensure that you are one step or 11.7mm ahead of your opponent when all is said and done. It will always be about lifting trophies and securing medals, about donning the white dress and veil before parading down the aisle yourself — trophy in hand.
The power of winning.
The power of winning holds the ability to right wrongs and re-write narratives, as demonstrated by Tiger Woods’ Masters victory. The power of winning re-establishes nationalities, as shown by Andy Murray’s triumphant popular transformation from the losing Scot into the victorious Brit. The power of winning compels athletes to jump ship and join arch-rivals in defence of their legacies, basketball’s Kevin Durant being case and point. The power convinces us of Tom Brady and Michael Jordan’s superiority (six championships apiece), while too confining the championship-less Dan Marino and Charles Barkley to a form of superstar purgatory. Crucially, the power of winning does not have any respect for comparative reasoning. It considers no asterisks, just raw achievements.
If 78 points in a particular season equates to first place, as Arsenal achieved in 1997/98, then that is the level of success for that specific year. Just as if 9.92 is enough for Justin Gatlin to win the 100m World Championships in 2017, it makes little difference that 9.71 was only good enough for second place for Tyson Gay in 2009. In history’s eyes success is contextualised, and ruthlessly so. If immense talent does not equate to ultimate victory on the biggest of stages, in memory, that talent becomes tainted irrespective of the competitive reasoning for its shortcomings.
History, for one, tells us that Andy Roddick was an unequivocal disappointment for American tennis ever since his US Open victory and world number 1 ranking in 2003, and yet fails to remind us that he lost four grand slam finals to Roger Federer — the greatest tennis player of all time — while playing in what is widely considered the greatest era of tennis. History, too, tells us that the aforementioned, and recently disgraced, Tyson Gay suffered at major championships, never succeeding in winning an individual Olympic gold medal, and yet fails to remind us that his times (joint second fastest ever) were only struck down by a towering Jamaican ‘lightning Bolt’ — who perhaps resembled more of an Avenger than a track athlete.
It is with these crucial final millimetres that ‘that night in Istanbul’ can be separated from ‘a valiant effort in Istanbul’.
But sport doesn’t tell incomplete fables of talented nearly-men, it quintessentially champions champions. As close as these men came, it is with these crucial final millimetres that ‘that night in Istanbul’ can be separated from ‘a valiant effort in Istanbul’, or the glorious ‘they think it’s all over… it is now’ in 1966 can be separated from the paraphrased ‘they think it’s all over… oh wait no it isn’t we’re going to penalties’ in 1996.
So while, over this 2018/19 season, Liverpool have come about as close as you can get to bending and blurring the binary between winning and losing, with Diego Simeone’s post-Champions League final retort that ‘nobody remembers the losers’ in mind, it is apparent that this harsh dividing line is as invariably impenetrable and bold as it has ever been. Fundamentally, in a world that has embraced the presence of spectrums, sport remains a game of two — that of the champion and the challenger; the winner and the loser; the bride and the bridesmaid.