By Mark Burke
If you touch a butterfly's wings, you can damage some of the delicate dust; the scales that enable it to fly.
Similarly if a footballers ‘wings’, in other words his confidence, are damaged, then he too finds it very difficult to fly.
I recently watched Fernando Torres during his well chronicled low period and felt sympathy since his lack of enjoyment of the game was so obvious. I I know, I know. How can you feel sorry for a multi-millionaire footballer who is living every young man's dream?
Well having played the game myself, I can. Every footballer knows what he is going through and a severe loss of confidence is the worst thing, apart, from injury, that can strike.
I was amazed to see such a top player seemingly unable to do the most basic things. It seems Torres is over this now (maybe not fully) but this article still examines the one single most critical factor in football: Confidence.
Here is a world class player but not one immuned to the mental turmoil caused by having no confidence. World Cup winner, European championship winner, idolised by millions but with his confidence so low, his ’wings’ looked damaged and he was unable to get off the ground. His natural football rhythm was out of sync, his touch unsure, his runs hesitant and his finishing feeble.
And all because of the one intangible thing that comes and goes with little or no explanation but can win and lose championships, get managers the sack and relegate teams. A thing that can make the normal difficult and the difficult impossible. By contrast, an abundance of it can elevate a player to levels that even surprise himself.
When I was in Japan I became friends with Steve Perryman, the Tottenham legend. He told me that Ossie Ardiles had once said to him that when he was confident he felt he could take on and beat the world but that when his confidence was low he found it hard to compete with average players. Osvaldo Ardiles -World Cup winner!
As a player I remember those moments when you felt your confidence ‘wobble’, a good word to use. It is like a small tremor; things become loose. A bad pass here, a wrong touch there and the wobble occurs. The crowd groans. Then another bad pass and suddenly the groan takes on a different tone, almost imperceptible but containing hidden messages and signals. This subtle change in tone is felt in the player's soul. Ten minutes beforehand everything was fine but now the doubts come thick and fast.
Normally the noise of the crowd is just a backdrop but now the player becomes aware, more than ever, of those thousands of eyes watching, judging and waiting to pounce. He feels the anticipation -- the negative anticipation -- just waiting for the miscontrolled ball. Waiting to pass final judgement: thousands of fans with thumbs poised, no mercy.
Like the ancient Roman crowds at the Coliseum, the players are there to provide entertainment. Anyone who displeases the demanding crowd can expect immediate retribution. Football, after all, is supposed to be a diversion from the long working week and the slog of everyday life. A chance to release tensions, perhaps the only place a person can verbalise his frustrations.
Yet football 'judgement' is instant. No waiting for the next day’s newspapers and the critical comments. The footballer gets his reviews immediately with no kind words to soften the pain.
But is this fair? Is it fair that the professional sportsman should feel so vulnerable? A footballer's life is a very public one, his profession analysed at every turn. But remember, these are human beings you are judging, not automatons.
So the next time you watch a game of football, remember too the players all have butterfly wings that can so easily get damaged.
* Mark Burke is the former Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Fortuna Sittard midfield player.