The New English Disease

Are Disappointing Sporting Displays The New National Problem? 

As summer approaches and our footballers gear up for the European Championships, and our Olympians prepare for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of a home Olympiad, Raggedy Ann Girl looks forward to discovering new national heroes, and hopes that the disappointments and disasters of the recent past are long forgotten. Just in case anyone of them needs encouragement to succeed, here's last year's feature on our sporting woes …

This week English sports fans had yet another disappointment. This time, not at the hands of their football team, but at those of their Rugby Union players. When you think about it, it was all so inevitable. After all, when it comes to England teams we've had more than our fair share of disappointments during major tournaments of late. It seems the more hullabaloo about the event ahead of time, the greater the let-down once play gets under way. So, while it's tempting just to accept that the English are to suffer perennial letdown, it does make me wonder do English teams really under-achieve, or do fans simply have too high an expectation?

To some extent is is true that our desire to have our national teams do well does seem, often, to be disproportionate to the likelihood of ultimate success. But then, while we might dream of it, I don't think we expect total world domination. Because, if we knew that we had absolutely no chance of being crowned World Champions, or even Champions of Europe, then you have only hope, not expectation. But the fact is, on paper at least, both the England football and rugby union teams have had considerably better than average chances of doing just that. Now you might, and quite rightly, argue that no sport is played on paper, and that winning has nothing to do with form or world rankings and everything to do with how the individuals within the team, and the team as a whole, perform throughout the tournament. But the fact remains that our national players ought to be able to succeed. Even if they don't win a tournament, they should be able to make a decent fist of it. After all we are talking about highly skilful and well-trained athletes who should at least be able to perform to the level they do for their own clubs. And yet, something seems to be missing.

Some claim that English lack of success is merely down to the rest of the world catching us up. That the once minor sporting nations are getting better and that the gap between the old guard and the emerging nations is shrinking. Certainly this is true. This accounts for the fact that English teams now rarely beat those supposedly smaller nations by huge margins. The same is true of all the other major sporting nations. But what is not true of them, is the seeming ineptitude that overcomes our national side once it arrives at a championships where performances have been routinely unconvincing and inexplicably mediocre.

And it seems that, whenever an England side embarks on a major tournament, its campaigns are scuppered. Not by unfortunate injuries or ill-judged refereeing decisions, as used to be the case, but by the team itself. Sometimes even before the first national anthem had been sung. Whether it's romantic disentanglements,  tabloid exposures, public misbehaviour, arguments between players and between players and coaches, nightclub assignations or fracas on the street, such distractions can hardly enhance the cohesion of a group of players.

Excuse-makers would probably argue that it is the intense media interest that causes these problems, but of course if the players were doing nothing more than retiring to their hotel rooms with a mug of cocoa and a good book the media wouldn't bother to report it. It's probably true that players of days gone by got up to all sorts and it went unreported. But everyone knows that's all changed now and surely there are no players who've failed to notice it?

Some players, of both sports, don't seem to enjoy playing. If that is the case, someone needs to ask some serious questions about why that should be. The pitch should, after all, be the place each player feels the most at home, and yet some seem to be at their most uncomfortable there. Walking on to that pitch on a matchday should be the highlight of the week for players. And representing your country should be the highlight of a career for any player. After all, it's the reason for all the hard work. Someone needs to help those players remember that it's all about what happens on the pitch and help them rediscover the joy of just playing.

Sometimes I wonder whether, for some professional athletes, the hard work on the pitch just can't measure up (in terms of enjoyment) with the rest of the week. Are the non-playing aspects just a little bit too comfortable? From dressing rooms with experience showers, glamorous advertising shoots and cosy tv studio sofas, our sports stars are really quite pampered. Is it possible that the prospect of running around on a cold, windy, wet pitch for 80 or 90 minutes just doesn't have that much appeal anymore? Perhaps that's over simplifying things. But perhaps a little bit of fighting the elements, of 'us-against-the-world' might be a good thing? Is is possible that a team needs a bit of mutual hardship (even if it's only a hard bench to sit on and less than perfect showers) to pull them together? Can it be as simple as that? Probably not, but I think it might be a contributing factor. 

What we need is a big character. Someone who by their very presence in the team pulls teammates together and inspires those around him to give everything for the cause. Gone are the days players like Terry Butchers, roaring his team to victory, blood-soaked bandage on his head, fists clenched with passion. Or Will Carling playing inspiring speeches from Shakespeare before leading his team into battle. It used to be 'an honour' to represent your country and in very the truest sense since you didn't get properly paid for the privilege. Perhaps it's no longer enough to simply be picked to represent your compatriots. And perhaps the attention of the media, and the expectations of the fans simply makes the idea all the more uncomfortable.

It's tempting to blame all the England football's team woes on having had a foreign coach (first a Swede, then an Italian) for so many years. But our rugby union squad, which just gave us one of the most ill-fated campaigns are coached by an English man, and a World Cup winner at that. 

But I don't believe for one second that all is lost. Other nations never seem to be similarly blighted. They shout with national pride. And even if, as some suspect, it is the case that some of our stars are becoming too pampered to care. After all, at some time or another, all these men wanted, more than anything, to play that sport, to represent their country, to be the best. Granted they now reap huge rewards for their hard work, regardless of results. They live lives of luxury and enjoy celebrity which these days seems to be an end in itself. But somewhere, deep inside though it may be, must be that young lad who once had such passion, such love for the game. If only we could work out how to find him …