In sport, a "choker" or "choke artist", is an individual or a team who squander a seemingly unassailable winning position or fail to achieve something when the odds were heavily stacked in their favor. In Britain, the term "bottler" is preferred to "choker", with both meaning largely the same thing. The reasons for a "choke" are often put down to nerves or a lack of mental strength and "choking" in general is regarded as a form of analysis paralysis.
In soccer, where the audiences and stakes at the top level of the game are extreme, choking is fairly common. The beauty of the game, in many ways, is the chance of one side beating any other on a particular given day, even if the odds are firmly against them. Confidence plays such a large part in soccer that chokes are far from uncommon and when sides gain or lose momentum, huge swings and changes in fortune can be caused.
Throughout the history of soccer, heavily fancied teams have failed and been labelled chokers whilst underdogs have rallied to victory. Even in recent years, when sports psychologists and the like have been introduced, in order to fine tune the mental state of soccer players, chokes are still a regular occurrence. While it's devastating to the players or teams, the cruel nature of not just soccer, but any sport is what makes it so intense. Emotions run incredibly high, then hit just about the worst low you could ask for.
Here are the 15 biggest chokers in soccer history:
20 Liverpool/Steven Gerrard: 2013/14
Fresh in our minds, it's Liverpool's collapse at the tail end of the 2013/14 Premier League season, and most notably of course, that slip by Steven Gerrard. A run of 11 consecutive wins meant the Reds looked set to record their first ever Barclays Premier League title win, however, they would choke when it mattered most. Their last three games saw match-ups with Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Newcastle. Steven Gerrard's slip which allowed Demba Ba through on goal became the symbolic moment at which Liverpool's title chances slipped away from them, they lost that game before letting a 3-0 lead slip against Crystal Palace to draw 3-3. They did eventually beat Newcastle, but it was too late, and Manchester City took the title.
19 West Germany: Euro '76 Final
Having won the 1972 European Championship and the 1974 World Cup, West Germany went into the 1976 Euro looking to add a third consecutive major tournament win, and were hotly-tipped to do so. They reached the final where they faced Czechoslovakia. Having gone 2-0 down, Beckenbauer & co pulled the game back to 2-2 to take it to extra-time where they were expected to complete the turnaround and win the game. No extra-time goal meant the match would go to the lottery of penalties. Except, it is rarely a lottery when the Germans are involved. The 1976 European Championship Final is a rare blot upon their exceptional record from the spot. Czechoslovakia won the shoot-out 5-3 and the Germans were defeated.
18 Wayne Rooney: 2006, 2010, 2012, 2014
Wayne Rooney first announced himself to the world at the 2004 European Championship's in Portugal when he scored four goals as a teenager and made the UEFA Team of the Tournament. However, it would not be unfair to say that since 2004, Rooney has disappointed at every single major tournament England have been to. In 2006 he was struggling for fitness and didn't play at all well in Germany, rounding off his tournament with a red card as England were eliminated by Portugal. In 2010 Rooney was equally unspectacular, failing to score once more as England reached only the Round of 16. At the 2012 Euro, Rooney's first since 2004, he failed to repeat the form he showed in the tournament as a teenager. He scored once against the Ukraine before England were eliminated by Italy. Rooney scored his first ever World Cup goal in 2014 but failed to set the world alight, even if he was one of England's better players.
17 Newcastle United: 1995/96
The Newcastle United team of 1995/96 started the season in explosive style, blowing teams away, winning game after game and by Christmas they had a 10 point lead over second place. By January, their lead had been extended to 12 points and they appeared out of sight already. However, just two wins in eight games between February and April brought Manchester United back into the title race. Manager Kevin Keegan lost his cool in an infamous on-air rant, falling victim to Sir Alex Ferguson's mind games. Defeat to the Red Devils followed and an indifferent end to the season saw the Magpies' 12 point lead they had held in January crushed as Manchester United pipped them to the title in a legendary case of a team and manager choking under pressure.
16 Burnley: 1961/62
Not too dissimilar to Newcastle, Burnley saw their terrific start to the season ruined through an awful spell during March-April. Just three wins in 16 games in all competitions destroyed what had been a fantastic campaign by much-fancied, at the time, Burnley side. In the end, newly-promoted huge underdogs Ipswich Town, who had been tipped for relegation, won the title under the leadership of future England World Cup winning manager Sir Alf Ramsey. Aston Villa compounded Burnley's woes, defeating them 2-1 in the League Cup final, to make it a trophy-less season for the Clarets.
15 Real Madrid: 2003/04
Having won La Liga in the previous season and completing the major signing of David Beckham in the summer, hopes were high for Real as they embarked upon the 2003/04 campaign. The season began well and the Spanish giants were on course for an unsurprisingly impressive season at Christmas, when they led the league and remained in all competitions. A Champions League Quarter-Final defeat to Monaco and failure in the Copa del Rey final were early examples of this Real team choking but worse was to follow, as the side lost every single one of their last five games dropping from first to fourth, behind Valencia, Barcelona and Deportivo la Coruna. A terrible season for an exceptional Real Madrid squad.
14 Arsenal blows 4-goal lead to Newcastle
Title-challenging Arsenal looked well on course to send out a signal of intent to league-leaders Manchester United in February 2011, when they went in at half-time 4-0 ahead away at Newcastle United. However, shortly after the restart Abou Diaby saw red and over the next 45 minutes, Newcastle would record one of the most famous comebacks in the history of the game. Two Joey Barton penalties and a Leon Best strike gave the Geordie faithful some hope before Cheick Tiote struck a 20-yard thunderbolt in the 87th minute to level the scores. Arsenal choked on a gargantuan scale and collapsed defensively after Diaby's dismissal, although credit must be given to Newcastle for their valiant comeback and refusal to give up on the game even at 4-0.
13 Bayern Munich, 1999
The 1999 Champions League Final is one of the finest occasions in modern football history, unless you are a Bayern Munich supporter. Held at the magnificent Nou Camp in Barcelona, in front of a capacity 90,000 spectator crowd, Europe's premier club competition was competed in dramatic fashion by the two best teams on the continent at the time. Both sides had a potential treble in sight, and Bayern took the lead after just six minutes and when the fourth official held his electronic board aloft, their one-goal lead was still intact.
In the first minute of injury time Teddy Sheringham looked to have taken the game to extra time with an equalizer, but before Bayern had time to set themselves, the game was gone, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer won it in the 93rd minute. United had won the treble and to compound Bayern's woes they lost the DFB-Pokal a week later as their last minute choke saw a potential treble dwarfed to just the league title.
12 Manchester United, 1994/95
The 1994/95 Premier League season is sandwiched in between a pair of back-to-back league titles for Manchester United in an extraordinary period of success for the club, but that does not fully excuse the choke that was the 1994/95 season. The introduction of Andy Cole couldn't secure a third consecutive title win for the Red Devils, who could have won the league on the last day, but failed to beat West Ham United and finished as runners-up to Blackburn. Indications that United were losing their cool shone through when Eric Cantona received an eight-month ban for his kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace fan. United added a cup choke to their league failure, losing 1-0 to Everton in the FA Cup final, as well as having failed to get out of the Champions League group stages earlier that season.
11 Spice Boys
The crop of Liverpool FC youngsters which emerged during the mid-1990's were composed of some supremely gifted footballers, who many believe should have achieved similar success to that of their Manchester counterparts, commonly referred to as the 'Class of 92'. Primarily made up by the likes of Jamie Redknapp, David James, Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Jason McAteer, others have also been associated with the tag. Heavily involved in media, fashion and music circles, a number of players were criticized for having their focus too heavily placed away from the football pitch. The Spice Boys, won just a single league cup trophy, with no league titles, no FA Cup trophies and no major European success. A damning indictment of a team laced with quality.
10 France, Italy, Spain as defending champions
It is not wholly unusual for the holders of the World Cup to fall from grace in spectacular fashion just four years later, with Spain at last summer's tournament being a fine point in case. However, the 2006 holders' performance in 2010 was perhaps the greatest choke and from such a footballing dynasty like Italy, it took the world by surprise. Featuring the likes of Buffon, Chiellini, Cannavaro, De Rossi, Di Natale, Pirlo and others, Italy were gifted what seemed a delightfully easy group; Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zeland constituting the modest opposition. Despite this, the Italians failed to win a single game and managed to finish bottom of their group, a failure of catastrophic proportions.
9 John Terry, 2008 Champions League Final
John Terry has been a tremendous captain for Chelsea FC and the most successful in the club's history by some distance, but the 2008 Champions League final was not his finest hour. An all-English affair for the first time in the competition's history, Chelsea faced Manchester United. The game finished 1-1 and headed to penalties and after Cristiano Ronaldo missed his spot-kick, Terry had the chance to win Chelsea their first ever Champions League trophy. The Chelsea captain could not hold his nerve though, as he slipped and sent the ball wide of the goal, and United went on to win 6-5. It is harsh on Terry and some will blame the conditions rather than his mental steel, but he seemed wobbly as he approached the kick and so it proved, sadly Terry choked when it mattered most.
8 Liverpool vs. Arsenal, 1989
Sorry Liverpool fans, we're not picking on you and things will improve by the end of this list I promise you. It has to be said though, that the game between Liverpool and Arsenal in 1989 constituted a monumental choke. Played at Anfield, the match was the final game of the 1988/89 season and Liverpool and Arsenal made up the league's top two sides, and the clash acted as a potential title decider. Having said that, most did not see it that way.
To win the league, Arsenal needed to win the game by two goals, and Liverpool hadn't lost a game at Anfield by that margin in over three years. Arsenal led the game 1-0 through almost all the second half and in injury time, one of the most dramatic conclusions in the sports history took place as Arsenal doubled their lead to win the title.
7 Lionel Messi, International Competition
While he's been widely regarded as the best player in the world, Messi has yet to really wow us on the international stage. He seemed destined to give us that moment last summer, but could not will the Argentinians to victory. They've also fallen short in La Copa America. Argentina's only tournament victory with Messi came in the 2008 Summer Olympics where La Albiceleste won the gold. Still very underwhelming for a player considered by many to be the best of this generation.
6 France, 1994 World Cup Qualifiers
France won the World Cup just four years later, showing that this squad did possess considerable talent, but they most certainly did not show it in 1993 when they failed to even qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Top of their group, they needed just a point in their final two games against Bulgaria and Israel to qualify. They lost both and watched the tournament from the comfort of their own armchairs. They made amends four years later, and again at Euro 2000 but that doesn't alter the fact that the results in their final two qualifiers represented a horrific choke by a very gifted squad.
5 Roberto Baggio, 1994 World Cup Final
It is all too easy to overlook the performances of Roberto Baggio at the 1994 World Cup due to the iconic moment when he blazed his penalty over the bar in the final. He was arguably the stand-out player of the tournament, scoring five goals and making the FIFA Team of the Tournament as he inspired Italy to the final. Despite this, he is known only for one moment, the fifth and final penalty of the 1994 World Cup final when his miss won the game for Brazil and broke Italian dreams. Baggio had been struggling with a hamstring injury and his bandaged leg could not covert from 12 yards as he missed in spectacular fashion.
4 Asamoah Gyan
Asamoah Gyan stands right at the corner of 'choke' and 'heartbreak'. Ghana was Africa's last hope in the 2010 World Cup. Following a flagrant handball by Luis Suarez at the end of extra time, Ghana was awarded a penalty kick and seemed destined to become the first African team in history to advance to the semifinals. Gyan had been Ghana's best player throughout the tournament but couldn't finish on this day. Gyan's kick bounced off the crossbar, sending the game to a penalty shootout, which Uruguay won 4-2.
3 AC Milan, 2005 Champions League Final
I told you it wasn't all bad Liverpool fans. Letting a three-goal lead slip is unforgivable for any team, but when your back four reads; Cafu, Stam, Nesta, Maldini, an inquest is surely required. AC Milan walked into their dressing room at half-time with a 3-0 lead in the 2005 Champions League final, and some fans probably began to lose interest in the game at that point. The formidable Milan defense (and team in general) were expected to add, or at the very least see out, their already convincing lead. Liverpool apparently had not read the script though, and came out fighting, looking to capitalize on a potentially dramatic Italian choke, which is exactly what happened. Three second half goals took the game to penalties where Liverpool completed a remarkable comeback and lifted the Champions League against all the odds.
2 Hungary, 1954 World Cup Final
The Hungary team of the early-mid 1950s is regarded by many as the finest international team to ever take to the field. However, due to the Miracle of Bern, they have no major trophies to show for this dominance. Hungary had humiliated West Germany 8-3 in the group stages and the final got off on a similar theme as Hungary raced into a 2-0 lead after eight minutes.
Lest we forget, this is a Hungary team undefeated in five years, who had thrashed almost every footballing dynasty in Europe. What followed few could have anticipated, as West Germany clawed their way back into the game, leveling the scoreline before scoring a winner six minutes from time. The conditions of heavy rain are thought to have favored the Germans, whilst accusations of doping persist to this day. Either way, this was a choke of biblical proportions by one of the greatest teams to ever play the game.
1 Brazil, 1950 World Cup Final
There are a number of factors which are thought to bring about a 'choke', but overconfidence, complacency, excessive pressure, weight of expectation and inferior mental strength to one's opponents are perhaps the most noted. All of these could be used to describe the Brazil team of the 1950 World Cup. Held on home soil, there was an incredible expectancy and unwavering belief that Brazil would claim the trophy. Almost 175,000 Brazil fans looked on in disbelief as they were defeated by Uruguay and the loss sent the country into trauma with reports of members of the public and one radio journalist committing suicide in the wake of the defeat. In a unique group rather than a knockout format, Brazil only needed a draw to win the World Cup and looked set to do so having taken the lead. Uruguay struck back twice to win the game 2-1 and win the World Cup with it, in what is often regarded as the greatest shock in World Cup history.