We want to win, but expect to lose

Ba'athist motivational techniques might be a bit much, but we need some way of giving English sport a boot up the backside.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Oops, there go the Ashes. Okay, maybe it’s too early in the Test Series to start writing obituaries to English cricket, but the omens aren’t good after this week’s mauling at the hands of a rampant Australia.

England’s 277-run defeat in Brisbane capped a wretched few months for English sport. Our footballers suffered from stage fright at the World Cup finals and are now wobbling in the Euro 2008 qualifiers. The English rugby union team, nominally still world champions, has parted company with coach Andy Robinson after a wretched run of eight defeats in nine games. And now our cricketers, who were being paraded through London like war heroes last year, are becoming reacquainted with the taste of humble pie. Somehow, we’re going to have to sift through these assorted losers, underachievers and chokers in order to find a credible candidate for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.

So how do we explain the dismal fortunes of our national sporting teams? Is it the case that we’re just a nation of losers? I think it’s much more complex than that. There’s no doubt that we want to win but it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the cap of failure fits rather too comfortably. By contrast, look at how sporting failure is greeted in other countries. In Italy footballers are physically attacked and their cars get vandalised when a team isn’t performing well. Earlier this year, two Internazionale players were kicked and punched by their own fans after the team had been eliminated from the Champions League.

In some countries the price of failure can be much higher. Colombian international Andres Escobar was shot dead after his own goal contributed to his nation’s elimination from the 1994 World Cup. When Iraqi footballer Abbas Rahim Zair missed the decisive penalty in a shootout against the United Arab Emirates, he was locked up in a prison camp for three weeks. When England players cock it up in a penalty shootout, what do we do? That’s right, we pay them a lot of money to appear in self-deprecating pizza commercials. All right, so maybe Ba’athist motivational techniques leave a lot to be desired, but you get the point: failure is something to which we’ve grown rather too accustomed.

As I said, we don’t want to fail. In fact, we’d dearly love to win. But the problem is that while we hope for victory we don’t expect to win. Sure, English teams have tasted victory, but a brief sip from the goblet of greatness is all we’ve ever had – there has been no sustained global domination. There’s a striking similarity in the recent downturn in fortunes of the English rugby and cricket teams. The rugby boys won their not-very-global World Cup in 2003, and rugby was proclaimed the new football. But it’s been downhill ever since.

Likewise, the England cricket team beat Australia last summer and there was a brief upsurge of cricket fever, but subsequent performances have been unconvincing. One could say much the same for the English football team. We won the World Cup in 1966 but it’s been 40 years of hurt ever since.

The recent tendency to over-celebrate every trophy with an open-top bus parade and a flurry of knighthoods and OBEs is symptomatic of the absence of a winning mentality in our culture. We party like crazy because winning is so rare and unexpected. If we were used to repeated success then our celebrations might be more understated. And that’s the problem: we’ve won stuff but we have no desire to keep on winning. Yet it’s the hunger to strive for more silverware that separates champions from the rest.

For true champions, winning isn’t a single event, it’s a habit. Winners are never satisfied with one trophy; they crave to win again and again.

Manchester United, for example, dominated English football throughout the 1990s. One Premiership trophy wasn’t enough; they retained their hunger to repeat their success year after year. But even though United lorded it over English football for a decade, they could not translate their 1999 Champions’ League victory into sustained European domination. Roy Keane criticised his United teammates for ‘living off that whole we-won-the-treble thing’ and losing their desire to win. ‘I have seen United players getting complacent, thinking they’ve done it all and getting carried away by a bit of success’, he complained.

How, then, do we acquire that winning mentality that the Aussies possess in bucketloads? We’ve tried investing in youth academies and state-of-the art training facilities; we’ve tried importing new dietary and fitness regimes; and we’ve even tried importing foreign coaches. But listening to Samba music and practising step-overs doesn’t make us Brazilians. There are still deep-rooted cultural obstacles to overcome.

The problem is that values, such as arrogance, ruthlessness, aggression, competitiveness, and naked ambition, which are the necessary prerequisites of sporting excellence, are nowadays regarded with suspicion. Look, for example, at how we demonise the pushy parents for putting too much pressure on their children to succeed, or brand as bullies those obsessive winners, like Roy Keane or Alex Ferguson, who refuse to tolerate failure, or the way we despise Chelsea for putting results before entertaining football.

I’m not suggesting we incarcerate footballers who miss penalties or inflict physical punishment on our cricketers if they come home without the Ashes. But we want to progress from one-hit-wonders to world champions then we really need a radical shift in our cultural attitudes towards winning and losing.

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Topics Politics


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