With a premature Champions trophy exit, England’s national habit of failing to win a major sporting tournament continues. Set up by a media complicit in placing the weight of a nation on our athletes’ shoulders, at least when the fall does come, it makes for compelling reading.
When England’s male cricketers last got knocked out at the group stage of a global tournament, Australia had the courtesy to go on and win the thing. Two years on from their humiliation at the hands of a burgeoning Bangladesh side, the tables appeared to have turned; England were favourites and well set going into the knockout stages of this year’s Champions Trophy.
Alas it wasn’t to be, as the pitch, or Pakistan, or possibly even both, ensured that England once again conformed to their national pastime of never quite fulfilling expectations.
“We still believe, we still believe,” ring the familiar opening lyrics to England football’s 1998 World Cup anthem, a campaign in which England, having scraped through to the last 16, fell at the very next hurdle. “30 years of hurt,” has developed into 50 years, and counting, since England last won a football World Cup.
Yet all is not lost, we are told, for England’s Under-20s have just defeated Venezuela, a country in more political turmoil than our own, in their age-group World Cup final. It is England’s first global title since 1966. Label them a ‘golden generation’ at your peril; do this and they will bow under the burden of expectation which has felled so many before them. It’s not the despair, you see. We can take the despair. It’s the hope we can’t stand.
There is however a romanticism in losing – in this at least, the pundits thrive. There is always a tale to be told in defeat; a tragedy is never borne of one route, but many. The sordid details of these converging roads to ruin make for a good story. The agony of defeat also often comes from the heart – coverage is more earnest, more passionate than that of victory. In defeat we lament the loss of a very personal hope which had been thrust upon others to fulfil. I doubt any experienced journalist can truthfully claim that they have not once revelled in writing, or speaking of, the capitulation of a much-vaunted team they had been paid to follow. I am guilty.
Journalists in sport face a conundrum. All who are in the profession have started off as players, fans, or at least followers of the game. There will always remain a partisanship. Few will not have dreamt of pulling on an England shirt, and few will not have, at times, overcompensated the other way, admonishing their natural team more than is deserved in pursuit of some vague notion that it is a measure of impartial journalistic integrity. That is an English trait too – bending one’s back to appear unbiased, gracious even, towards the opposing side, even if it is only an appearance.
Further still, there is often an element of schadenfraude in watching, writing and talking about those whose job it is to do what we cannot (but of which we have often dreamt of doing), fail narrowly against someone who can do it better still. It is a satisfaction most will not admit to. Still, it exists. More so even for those now covering the game who may in fact have been there and done that, but whose time in the limelight is consigned to the past. It makes for good drama too, so such behaviour is encouraged, even expected.
That journalists embark on every tournament, every series, with such conflicting emotions makes conditions ripe for overreaction, whether it be at a team winning, or as can often be the case, losing. Delusional, we expect an England win where the rest of the world sees none. The pressure mounts. The fall is inevitable.
Every year at Wimbledon, Roger Federer, as close as it gets to being an adopted sporting Brit, muses that he’d rather remain a neutral Swiss, such is the pressure and expectation thrust upon Andrew Murray, or Henman before him. That Murray has triumphed on home turf, twice, in such an isolating, pressure-strewn sport, makes his achievement all the more remarkable. No wonder his early career was defined by his frostiness towards the British public. Give us a reason to like him, and we drown him in a torrent of expectation. Perhaps being a surly Scott was the only route to success. England ODI captain Eoin Morgan is halfway there with his steely-faced Irishman facade.
The winners of this patriotic pressure, channelled by the media, endorsed by the public? The betting syndicates of course. Not to mention the rest of the world. Rule one of betting, never bet with your heart. We rarely adhere, of course, but it’s a rule to remember on defeat, when our hard-earned cash parts, in synchrony with our team’s prospects – blood money would have softened the blow.
The solution is simple – to wallow instead in dutiful pessimism. To do otherwise consigns us, as it did the generations before us, to an eternity of disappointment. The greater the expectation, and with it the pressure, the bigger the fall. Of course, resistance to this English malaise might ultimately be futile; as English-men, and women, we might just be born that way. Better put that wager on an England triumph at the next World Cup then.