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The little things that shape history

Jun 01, 2008 Success, Sunday Nation

Let’s talk football this Sunday. But only briefly, so the rest of you don’t run away…

A few days ago the captain of Chelsea Football Club, John Terry, stepped up to take a Very Important Penalty in Moscow. His team was facing Manchester United in the final of the European Champions League, the world’s most prestigious club tournament. The the two sides had played 120 minutes of gruelling football, grinding to a 1-1 stalemate after extra time. Which meant the game would be decided on spot kicks.

Terry’s team were ahead by the time he placed the ball on the slot. United’s superstar Cristiano Ronaldo had already fluffed his penalty, engaging in over an over-elaborate and showy run-up and then skying the ball. So all the cards were in Chelsea’s hands. The two managers, Avram Grant of Chelsea and Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester, watched from the sidelines. If Terry now scored from his kick, Chelsea would be champions.

There was little to worry about. Terry was the team’s captain and a famously stout-hearted fellow. Though a defender, he had been practicing spot kicks with the rest of the team. Having watched videos, Chelsea knew that Edwin van der Sar, United’s goalkeeper, had a weakness on his left-hand side. Indeed, all four previous Chelsea penalty takers that night had scored by placing the ball to the left of the keeper. All Terry had to do was slot the ball home as per plan, and he would be the hero. The only slight problem? It was pouring with rain.

Football lovers know the rest. Terry ran confidently towards the ball. Just as he made contact, however, his left foot slipped on the wet ground. All plans evaporated, the ball went wide, and Chelsea lost their chance. Two kicks later, Manchester United were the champions of Europe and Chelsea were the also-rans.

Why am I telling you this story? To demonstrate two things: first, that the most careful, diligent planning can come to nothing; and second, that a small, simple piece of bad luck can change the course of your life – and even of history. Perhaps I should let the poets put it in their inimitable way: “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry”; and “There’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip.”

The line between exhilarating success and bitter defeat is often very thin. Consider this: had John Terry not slipped on that fateful night, he would in all likelihood have scored. He would then have been the hero of heroes; his team would have been hailed by all as Europe’s best team; and his much-mocked coach Avram Grant would have been seen as a miracle-worker. On the other side, Ronaldo would have been seen as a show-off who lacked seriousness when it mattered; and Sir Alex may well have gone down in history as a coach whose sides were nowhere as convincing in Europe as they were in England.

But Terry did slip. And so he is a choker who bottles it on the big stage (the bucketloads of tears he cried after missing did not help in countering this judgement). His team is labelled second-best, not-quite-good-enough. Coach Grant was sacked from his job just three days later, and was condemned by his predecessor as having a “loser’s philosophy”. Ronaldo and Ferguson, meantime, are kings of Europe.

What should we learn from this? Plan carefully, by all means – but be prepared for anything. One of my favourite sayings: “Every boxer has a plan – until he takes the first punch in the face”! True character is often revealed when that first punch lands, in the thick of battle – not in the cloistered atmosphere of the planning room. Taking the punch is not a mistake; you can no more avoid mistakes than you can avoid life itself.

Second, we must understand and accept that much success or failure comes from very small pieces of luck – good or bad. The world is quick to make judgements, to raise winners to the heavens and kick losers into the gutter – but the difference between them is often razor-thin. The best teams and organisations – and their leaders – know this to be a fact. They do not get carried away with delusions of grandeur. They think, when they look at the failures of others:”There, but for the grace of God, go I”.

Small things have big effects. Consider, as you count your Safaricom shares allocation, what might have happened if Kencell (as Celtel was then) had not stubbornly stuck to per-minute billing in 2001. Consider what our history might have been if the group that wanted to prevent Daniel arap Moi from ascending to power had managed to convene that crucial cabinet meeting to block him.

History turns on the smallest of wheels. But the best football team in Europe this year did lift the cup.

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