There were a huge amount of talking points to reflect on as the final whistle sounded on an eventful night of Champions League final football in Kiev.
Gareth Bale had scored arguably the greatest goal in European final history, two players had left the pitch in tears following cruel injuries and Madrid had become the first team to win three European Cup finals in a row since Bayern Munich from 1974-1976. But all the attention, all the post-match pub talk, all the morning papers would focus cruelly and unkindly on one man in particular: The isolated young German who was sitting alone in his own penalty area, Loris Karius.
Just put yourself in his position for one moment. Karius presumably always had a talent for goalkeeping, and started his youth career at the little-known German side FV Biberach. He gradually rose up through the ranks, eventually signing for Stuttgart, and played for the Germany Under-16s.
His rise continued when he moved to Manchester City, and after a loan spell at Mainz he eventually impressed enough for Liverpool to sign him for £4.7m in 2016. After a year of rotation and injuries under Jurgen Klopp, Karius seemed to have finally won his battle with Simon Mignolet to become Liverpool number one during the 2017/18 campaign, and all his effort and patience was now appearing to be rewarded through an appearance in a Champions League final.
All the hard work, all the long training sessions and tiring drills had led to this, and one can imagine the kind of dreams he may have had the night before the big match; making a crucial save in the last minute, perhaps, or palming away the decisive penalty to win his team the competition against the odds like Jerzy Dudek in 2005. Fast forward 24 hours and rather than being lifted high in celebration he was left alone on the turf, a broken man, his dreams crumbling around him and turning into a nightmare.
Only sport can do this. In which other job can a moment’s indecision, a split-second of hesitation, cause such pain? 99% of the time in the first incident Karius would have seen Benzema lurking and chosen another option. It was almost like a FIFA glitch, an incident that couldn’t possibly happen in a Champions League final, and the two players involved looked as stunned as anyone else when the ball ended up in the back of the net.
Karius must have also spent hours and hours of mind-numbing training sessions practising comfortably catching shots like Bale’s fairly ambitious long-range effort. Yet on the biggest stage, in the biggest game of his career, Karius messed up both times. And despite feeling sympathy, and cringing in embarrassment for him, us, the audience, couldn’t stop watching. It’s like when you see an accident on the motorway. You know you shouldn’t look, that it is almost disrespectful to do so…Yet can’t help yourself.
Of course, the nature of being a goalkeeper means that their mistakes are generally highlighted a lot more than any other position on the field. A midfielder can lose possession to concede a goal and it will often be brushed over in analysis. Likewise, a central defender getting caught out of position doesn’t receive nearly as much attention as a goalkeeping blunder. It speaks volumes that despite Bale’s wondergoal, the most jaw-dropping, ‘Oh my god did you see that?’ moments of the night came not through quality, but rather from a complete lack of it.
But then, it was ever thus in sport. The 1994 World Cup final is not remembered for Brazil winning, but rather for Italian legend Roberto Baggio ballooning his penalty over the bar. Baseball player Bill Buckner enjoyed a highly successful career, yet what sticks most in people’s minds will always be his through-the-legs error which led to the Mets beating the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series.
The quality of sport is now so high, so quick, at times almost robotic, that the slip ups are talked about and analysed just as much as the moments of genius. Sports players aren’t seen as real humans, with feelings, emotions, good days and bad days, and so when they screw up and collapse it is undeniably exciting and enthralling for the audience.
In cricket an easy dropped catch is talked about just as much as the six which is smashed out of the ground. In tennis a double fault on set point means more than a glorious backhand stroke down the line. Just like any good novel or film, sport needs its flawed characters, for mistakes to be made, for imperfections.
Where poor Karius goes from here is unclear, but there is no doubt that he has joined the legion of players who, no matter what they go on to achieve, will always be remembered for the wrong reasons. He could have taken some solace from looking across at the touchline in Kiev at Zinedine Zidane.
The Frenchman’s extraordinary moment of weakness in the 2006 World Cup final when he headbutted Marco Materazzi could easily have ended his career in football altogether, yet since then he has established himself as one of the finest managers in the world, and winning three Champions League titles in a row is an astonishing feat.
And yet in years to come, when Zidane retires from football for good and people look back over his playing and managing career, what will inevitably still be the moment that first springs to mind? The headbutt.
Mistakes, mess ups and villains are just as necessary as the golden moments in sport, and always will be. For that reason, no matter where he ends up and what he achieves from now in his career, Karius’ blunders in Ukraine will never be forgotten.