The path to ultimate glory always goes through a labyrinth of predictable results. Fans can always tell who should win based on historical data or current form.
But once in a while, the gods upset the balance in favour of the underdog — an overwhelming favourite experiences a downfall so severe that spectators watch with mouths agape, wondering what the heck they’ve just witnessed.
Whether it is Barca’s La Remontada or Mike Tyson’s first defeat, these unicorn events echo throughout generations as timestamps of favourites dropping the ball against underdogs.
One side of the Atlantic calls it “choking”; the other side calls it “bottling.” I’ll be using both terms interchangeably.
Choking as an art form
When we remember famous choking disasters in sports, we often try to pinpoint the pivotal moment or play that changed the course of events.
While choking can happen in one moment of madness, sometimes, losing your grip on a favourable position could last for the span of the game; other times, the misery compounds over a number of days.
I’ll show you different forms of choking. In some cases, I’ll mention how this affected both the bottlers and the beneficiaries.
The unicorn choking event
This one is a one-in-a-gazillion performance that befuddles fans, even to this day.
Argentina was playing Colombia at the 1999 Copa America. During this game, Argentinian Striker Martin Palermo missed 3 penalty kicks.
The crazy thing is that the match ended 3-0 in favour of Colombia. And guess what? Colombia even managed to miss one penalty in this game.
Another unicorn choking event came during the Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike semifinal match at Evolution Championship Series 2004.
Japanese gamer Daigo Umehara managed to parry 15 consecutive hits delivered by his opponent Justin Wong with only a tiny bar of health left. He then responded with a final combo to deliver the win against Justin.
This remarkable feat is known as the “Daigo Parry.” It is one of the first viral eSports moments.
Guess what? Eighteen years later, Justin Wong managed to lose again to the same “Daigo Parry” in 2022.
2022 just started man…. WTF— Justin Wong (@JWonggg) January 4, 2022
How did I let this happen already pic.twitter.com/m5Bco0Txza
And to make matters worse, he even said, “You think you Daigo? You ain’t Daigo.” before the painful sequence of parries started.
The underdog story
In 1990, Mike Tyson put his title up for defence against Buster Douglas. The entire world thought this would be a cakewalk. The odds favoured Tyson 42/1.
When Buster Douglas finally knocked Mike Tyson out in the 10th round, the world watched in disbelief.
Today in 1990, Buster Douglas defeats Mike Tyson. Betting odds were 42-1.— TodayInSports (@TodayInSportsCo) February 11, 2023
Iron Mike found his kryptonite. Maybe he overlooked his opponent. Maybe Buster Douglas reached into the depths of grief after his mom’s passing to find that knockout punch.
Either way, Tyson bottled it.
Although Buster Douglas lost the belt to Evander Holyfield and faded into obscurity, he will forever be the architect of one of the biggest upsets in sports history.
The unprecedented disaster
The 2007 Patriots sliced through every opposition to a resounding 18-0 (16-0 regular season) record. Going into the Super Bowl XLII, they just had to defeat the New York Giants to cap an immaculate season.
And everything was going according to plan until the last few minutes of the first quarter, with the score 14-10.
Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning got the ball and managed to wriggle away from three Patriots’ defenders.
He then launched a Hail Mary pass deep into the field to find David Tyree, who managed to catch the ball by pinning it to his helmet with one hand.
Then the Giants scored a touchdown to win the game 17-14.
And just like that, the Patriots managed to bottle the Super Bowl by losing to the “miracle play of the decade” in the last seconds of the season.
The moment of madness
Sometimes, an indiscretionary action by one player costs their team. One fitting example is Karius for Liverpool during the 2018 UEFA Champions League Final in Kyiv.
He single-handedly handed the cup to Madrid with two unforgivable errors. First, from bouncing the ball off Benzema’s foot to then punching a Bale shot into his own net.
Loris Karius’s career never recovered from that night in Kyiv. He now forever epitomises choking under the bright lights.
In the same vein, Andriy Shevchenko cost Milan massively in the 2005 UCL final. After coming off the bench, he missed a sitter in extra time and then went ahead to miss the deciding penalty.
The personal vendetta
You can’t talk about personal vendetta without mentioning Reggie Miller’s 9 seconds against the Knicks.
During the final moments of a 1995 Playoff game between the New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers, Reggie Miller pulled out the greatest choking celebration in basketball.
In typical fashion, the Knicks managed to let him score two back-to-back 3s and two free throws in 9 seconds.
To cap off the iconic moment, Reggie Miller turned to lifelong Knicks fan Spike Lee to show him the “choke” sign. The Knicks lost.
The moment of sadness
Some bottle jobs are just so painful to watch, given the historical context and the visible impact on the person involved.
But these two events stand out.
Roberto Baggio, the foxy Italian attacker with the unique ponytail, missed the decisive penalty against Brazil in the 1994 World Cup final.
Missing a penalty kick is not a crime, but doing so in the World Cup final with the ball sailing over the bar has to be the most painful thing to happen on a pitch.
The juxtaposition of Roberto Baggio hunched over, hands on knees in dejection, with the Brazilians celebrating in the background encapsulates the gravity of this miss.
On that day, Roberto Baggio became “the man who died standing”.
On the final day of the Formula 1 season in 2021, Lewis Hamilton was leading the championship.
He was firmly ahead of the field until the final few laps when an accident occurred, leading to a safety car.
Max Verstappen changed tires, but Mercedes left Hamilton out with old tires. This made sense because they assumed the tires would hold for one final lap.
When the FIA cleared the race for resumption for the last lap, Max Verstappen charged vollgas at Hamilton.
Within just a few corners, Verstappen took the lead and finished the race, winning his first Drivers’ Championship.
Mercedes and Lewis managed to bottle such a commanding lead due to bad luck and dodgy decisions by the FIA.
The chronic bottler
Romelu Lukaku’s performance in finals and key games is a combination of moments of sadness and madness.
His lack of poise and bottle in big moments is both infuriating and sad to watch at the same time.
The first signs of Lukaku’s chronic choking came when he missed the deciding penalty during the 2013 UEFA Super Cup.
In 2020, Lukaku scored an own goal in the Europa League final. Later that year, he blocked a decisive goal, which ended up knocking Inter Milan out of the UCL.
But it didn’t end there.
Lukaku’s misses sealed the fate of Belgium’s golden generation in that match against Croatia at the 2022 World Cup. And in 2023, he put on a disasterclass in the UCL final against Man City.
The premature celebration
Bottlejobs also come about when unfounded overconfidence collides with individual brilliance.
These two factors combined when Manchester United choked away the title to their City rivals.
With the game at 2-2, United were already de facto champions after beating Sunderland. Seeing the results, United players started a victory lap around the Stadium of Light.
Then with virtually the last kick of the game, Sergio Kun Aguero delivered the “Aguerooo” dagger to complete the comeback and knock Manchester United off their eternal perch.
This moment of colossal choking gave us a sneak peek into the changing fortunes of both clubs.
Even though Manchester United won the league the following year, they’ve remained in City’s shadow for a decade.
As Manchester City wins more trophies, Manchester United has become the new FC Hollywood.
The off-game bottlejobs
The most agonising bottlejobs take time to digest. It starts with denial, then realisation, before it actually happens.
The year 2016 was the year of the underdog: Leicester won the league, Portugal won the Euros, and Trump became president.
But for every victorious underdog, there is always a befuddled favourite who lets it slip. Sometimes, egos get in the way; other times, a series of unfortunate events unravels during one game.
When PSG beat Barcelona 4-0 at home, everyone assumed the tie was over. Not even the formidable MSN trio could claw back this deficit.
But what do you know? Barca, inspired by Neymar, managed to not only level the tie but to also score a 6th goal by Sergio Roberto. PSG choked the tie by a score of 6-5.
The following year, Barcelona choked a 2-0 lead by losing 4-0 to Roma by that Manolas wonder goal in Rome. They now lost another 3-0 lead to Liverpool during that iconic 4-goal demolition at Anfield.
The slow but painful choke
Arsenal spent an unprecedented 248 days on top of the league table. I say “unprecedented” because no other team has managed to last that long without finishing on top.
But Arsenal fans got too excited and started crowing themselves champions. They’d even hound and harangue pundits like Gary Neville, calling them haters.
Eventually, Arsenal’s season unravelled, and they ended up finishing second and trophyless, performing worse than a United team that had more scandals than victories.
The Golden State Warriors were one win away from capping the greatest NBA season of all time when the choke virus landed in their camp, bringing along injuries.
In Game 7 at home, the Warriors bottled the title to Lebron and Kyrie’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
Within a week, the Warriors had managed to choke in 3 straight games. This slow, painful choke hurts even deeper, considering they are now in the history books as the “winningest team” not to win the NBA title.
And then you have the Atlanta Falcons at Super Bowl LI.
Blitzing through the first 2 quarters, it felt like the Patriots had no answer to the Falcons’ superior offence.
With the score 28-3 to the Falcons halfway into the third quarter. The Patriots started clicking.
Watching this unfold in real time, the Falcons seemed frozen in a rut. They couldn’t make any conversions or plays throughout.
And then came that miracle Julian Edelman catch that bounced off someone’s shoe. This led to the drive that tied the game 28-28.
Going into overtime, Tom Brady and the Patriots seized the momentum and trounced the shell-shocked Falcons. The game ended 34-28 in favour of the Patriots.
The National humiliation
Bottlejobs can tarnish the collective pride of a nation — and it happened twice to Brazil.
During the 1950 World Cup final, Brazil were highly favoured against minnows Uruguay. Politicians were congratulating Brazil even before the game kicked off.
In the cruellest of twists, Brazil lost to Uruguay 2-1, triggering the Maracanazo — a national tragedy that led to violence, suicide spikes, and oceans of tears.
But did they learn from it? No.
In the 2014 World Cup, Brazil also went into the tournaments as the favourite and host country. Then they fell 7-1 to eventual winners Germany.
Although the 7-1 drubbing is more brutal in a sporting sense, it had a less significant impact on the populace.
Brazil has never come close to winning the World Cup since then.
The unlucky chokers
Some teams or athletes are just unlucky to be on the unfavourable size of colossal choking catastrophes.
From 2002 to 2008, Michael Ballack was an albatross hovering over any team that was going for the title. It didn’t help that he played for eternal chokers Bayer Leverkusen or “Neverkusen.”
In 2002, he became the “bridesmaid” after completing the infamous 4-peat.
With Bayer Leverkusen, Ballack bottled the Bundesliga on the final day, lost the DFB Pokal to Schalke, and lost the Champions League final against Real Madrid. He then capped it off with a World Cup final defeat to Brazil.
Then he won a few titles with Bayern, seemingly shaking off the curse.
In 2008, history repeated itself. Ballack lost the Euro final to Spain, kickstarting their European dominance. He was also part of the Chelsea squad that lost to Manchester United in the UCL final. And he lost to Tottenham in the FA Cup final, handing them their last trophy.
Messi, with the Argentinian national team, went through 10 years of consistent choking until Emiliano Martinez came and lifted that curse in Copa America 2021 and the 2022 World Cup.
The eternal chokers
Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund are Bayern’s brides. This means you can add Marco Reus to the list of unlucky chokers.
Marco Reus has been part of more bottlejobs than Michael Ballack. He was part of the team that lost the Bundesliga to Bayern on the last day of the 2022 season.
Atletico Madrid always manages to choke against Real Madrid on the biggest stage. They managed to lose two finals to Real in 2014 and 2024.
Chokers don’t come bigger than Tottenham. Remember when Leicester won the league, Tottenham was chasing them down. This club is synonymous with bottling. As Giorgio Chiellini once said: “It is ze history of ze Tottenham.”
"It's the history of the Tottenham. They always miss something to arrive at the end."— Football on TNT Sports (@footballontnt) July 9, 2021
Giorgio Chiellini just lives for getting under his opponents' skin 🎣
We think Harry Kane might remember this one on Sunday night… pic.twitter.com/Qo40g3oobg
The choking virus can affect any team. Unless the gods favour you like Mayweather or Marciano, you better temper the confidence with reality.