Sunday 15 September 2019

Comment: Loris Karius slipped through the net that sifts ineptitude out of elite sport


Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Tommy Conlon

In describing the mass- production methods of modern American agriculture, the Irish artist John Gerrard used a phrase that might well apply to contemporary sport too. He called it "the fascism of efficiency".

If the ultimate end in sport is to win, the means to that end is the acquisition of superior levels of competence. All the training, all the repetition over many years, is a drive to escape the ubiquitous spectre of human incompetence.

The best practitioners are capable of sublime athletic beauty, of wondrous cameos of skill and flair and imagination. But these glorious moments may camouflage a more mundane, but no less impressive achievement: they are first of all supremely well versed in the fundamentals of their trade.

The risk of serious error among them is low. It has been machined out of them through thousands of days of repetitive practice, like a length of wood that has been planed and sanded, over and over and over, until its knots and wrinkles have been smoothed out of existence. They have been tooled to a high-precision standard.

In professional football, for example, one only has to watch a game in the lower divisions to see the contrast. Here, misjudgements and mistakes become more commonplace. A player makes the wrong decision because he has misread a situation, because his mind is not clear. Or because he is physically not quick enough or agile enough to snuff out danger. Or because his skill levels are simply deficient.

At the pinnacle, however, these elementary flaws have, by and large, been weeded out through the irresistible pressures of natural selection. The best have been cleansed of these glaring impurities. Obviously, mistakes are made at this level too, and teams get beaten all the time. But the mistakes are usually not the result of basic ineptitude. The system guards against this possibility; the quality control protocols do not permit it.

Which is why the blunders perpetrated by Loris Karius last Saturday night weren't just blunders but transgressions. It seems inadequate to describe what he did as mere human error. It was more like aberrant behaviour. It was as if the Liverpool goalkeeper had committed acts of deviancy; he had broken sacred taboos. The system had been infiltrated by a player who had somehow passed through every level of the grading process, undetected, and was allowed to take his place in the pinnacle showpiece of global club football. His calamities were inconceivable at this level. It is just not supposed to happen.

The spectacular goal scored by Gareth Bale for Real Madrid was more conceivable, despite its rare quality. A Champions League final is an exalted occasion, with elite players on parade. It is designed for this purpose. The greatest talents are assembled with the expectation that some among them will find the inspiration to produce something superhuman, something way beyond the capacity of almost every other living mortal.

Bale and Karius represented the extreme ends of the performance spectrum. But a game of this magnitude is not supposed to be defined by polar-opposite examples of greatness and ineptitude. It is rather supposed to be defined by proximities, not extremities; by two teams of such similar standard that there is nothing between them. It is engineered to produce equally high-functioning protagonists where the possibility of catastrophic error is slim to non-existent.

The humiliation endured by the German was a tragic sight. It was compounded by the cruelty of being witnessed all over the world.

One might argue that the system betrayed him. Elite professional sport is the epitome of "the fascism of efficiency". It routinely discards the weak and the mediocre without any conscience or scruple. But in so doing, it also safeguards them against the kind of embarrassing ordeal that would befall them if they were allowed through. It is only when the system fails, as it ultimately did with Karius, that we can see the harrowing consequences.

He is paid extravagantly well, as they all are, but no amount of money could insulate him from his personal devastation last week, and which will haunt him for years to come. His statement on Sunday trembled with pathos. He was "infinitely sorry" for the mistakes he had made.

It is far too often forgotten that the families of sports people in the public eye suffer deeply when their loved one is so mercilessly exposed. Simon Hughes, the author and football writer, painted a poignant scene in his report last weekend.

"The tears inside Kiev's Olympic Stadium did not dribble only on to the already sodden shirts of those on the pitch," he wrote. "Near the half-way line behind Jürgen Klopp's dugout, sat two family members that had travelled to Ukraine to watch Loris Karius. The sight of his mother staring into the middle distance, looking away from the game while it was still going on as she held his sobbing girlfriend prompted Klopp's wife Ulla to move a few rows and try to offer some reassurance. At the end of the game, while Karius lay on the floor the three women - all of them connected by the desperation of it all - stood there, wrapped in each other's arms."

They walk a high and very fine tightrope, these rarefied creatures of the grass arena. They have acquired the necessary technical and athletic and psychological abilities to make it through the eye of the needle and into the land of fantastic wealth and fame. But they work perpetually in the shadow of public failure. The whole point of competitive games is to induce errors in your opponents while preventing them from inducing errors in you.

And they cope with it. They make very few major mistakes. And maybe it is because they don't make them that we sometimes fail to appreciate how inhumanly efficient they are in their work.

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