What is it that makes us such bad losers?
Those who watched, with snooty incredulity, news footage of effigy-burning and riots on the Indian sub-continent during cricket’s World Cup would do well to take a glance at the reaction of English sports writers and bloggers to the elimination of our national team. Almost without exception, commentators have seemed unable to contain their fury and disappointment.
In that home of family values, the Daily Mail, for example, their man Jeff Powell churned out the usual terms of abuse – yellow-bellied, scarlet-faced, craven, spineless, embarrassing, shameful and so on – before reaching a rather striking conclusion about the coach and the captain. “Let us just say that hanging would be too good for Fletcher, Vaughan and most of their fellow failures to defeat a single top-flight team on this calamitous expedition.”
Rage has obviously done something terrible to Jeff’s syntax, but we catch his drift. The punishment meted out to Bob Woolmer, Pakistan’s coach, after their defeat – murder – has clearly impressed at least one journalist. He was not alone. Without dipping more than a toe into the shark-pool occupied by sports columnists, one becomes aware of astonishing levels of rage and bitterness at the English team’s failure to reach the last four of the World Cup. No nation, it seems, is worse at taking defeat than the very country which once prided itself as the natural home of the good loser.
There is more to all this than bats and balls, coaches and players, high expectations dashed. Nations who are used to winning – Australia, America, Germany – tend to see defeat as an annoying deviation from the norm, a problem that needs to be fixed. Even those who rioted in Karachi and Delhi after Pakistan and India were eliminated from the contest would not have connected sporting defeat with a general national malaise.
For us, it is deeply and uniquely personal. Much of what is habitually written after an English team is defeated on an important occasion reveals what psychologists call “transference”. The intense hatred and disappointment expressed by writers is essentially directed at themselves.
English sportsmen, particularly those in team games, represent the spirit of the nation, and that is their undoing. The national spirit is self-doubting, doom-laden, convinced that even the greatest victory is little more than a brief respite in a general condition of defeat. Look at, or listen to, an English crowd while their team is winning: the tone is not of triumph or happiness but of anxiety, foreboding. The spectators know that it is only a matter of time before that never-ending losing streak reasserts itself and the status quo of misery is established once more.
This pre-emptive despair of the English paralyses its sportsmen. They sense it emanating from the crowd; it hangs over the sports pages of newspapers. As a result, a game is never fun, played with bravado or swagger. Even winning is an edgy, nervous business. Fear of losing is the prime motivator, and those obsessed by losing always lose.
There is a direct line between the way the English cricket team played in the make-or-break game against South Africa and the way the national football side plays in key internationals. Fearful and tentative, the footballers forget how to score or even pass the ball, while the cricketers’ opening batsmen prefer to leave balls rather than take the risk of hitting them. The footballers soon concede a goal; the cricketers manage a hilariously bad 28 runs in the first 10 overs of a 50-over game.
Only when they are in the comfort zone of imminent defeat do English sportsmen forget that they are representing a screwed-up nation and begin to play to their abilities. By then it is almost always too late.
So sport adds to our national uneasiness, and those involved in it become symptoms of the various things that are wrong with us. When the great Australian bowler Shane Warne made a prat of himself in his private life, it was seen as a passing personal problem for him to sort out; soon he was back, taking wickets. When our ex-hero Andrew Flintoff was caught drunk in charge of a pedalo, his behaviour was judged to represent any number of contemporary ills – celebrity, class, money, drink. No one paused to wonder whether the weird neediness of the English nation might have driven him to the pedalo in the first place.
The reason that our teams fail when it matters most has less to do with the quality of our sportsmen or managers than with the defeatist and resentful mood of the nation. For all the journalists’ rent-a-gob ravings about spinelessness, lack of passion and hoisting the white flag, the problem is not that the English care too little about winning but that, desperately and despairingly, they care far too much.