Of Exports and Excellence

I can’t believe that I’ve been here for six months and have not written anything about sport. Given that the English are a sport-obsessed nation, with at least 25% of all newsprint dedicated to the subject, you’d think it would be hard to get away from it. However, what makes it a bit easier is that I’m not much of a soccer fan. Or rather, a football fan (Don’t Mention the S-word!). Having a preference for Rugby and Cricket reduces my interest in the sport pages from the aforementioned 25% to about 2%. Because your typical sports section starts on the back page, and makes inroads for about 16 pages. Of that, 13 – 14 will be dedicated to football, one will have the details of the races, and one to two will manage to contain all relevant details of every other sport. Even when such momentous occasions as the recent Ashes victory occurs (a once-in-a-lifetime occasion for many, given that the last time England won the Ashes in Australia was 1987), the result of the Premier League football matches on the day pushed it off the back page on many papers.

I’ve struggled to understand why this is, and I still don’t get it. There are a few quick and easy possibilities:

  • The Premier League is probably the best football league in the world.
  • The Premier League has the most money pumped into it, leading to the media fawning over it to get more advertising spend.
  • England aren’t particularly good at any other sport.

Some people might contest the last point, mentioning the Rugby World Cup in 2003, or the recent Ashes victories (3 out of 4, now). Yes, there have been a few bright spots in the last decade. But you’d have to go a long way back before that for any proof of consistent excellence. In general, England are the whipping boys of world sport. Which is rather a shame, given how they came up with most of the games in the first place. It’s like the big brother teaching the little brother how to play chess, and enjoying having a weak opponent, until a year later when the little brother thrashes him and he doesn’t want to play anymore. The Exporter has lost the Excellence.

But then, the English aren’t really very good at football either – and proof of that is the fact that you need to go a lot further back in history to find any sort of success in the sport. 1966, in fact. The success of the Premier League is largely due to the foreign players permeating it. And they’re only there because of the money. And so you get what I consider to be a great irony – that Cricket is considered the upper-class gentleman toff’s game, yet the players earn far less than those in Football, which is considered to be the working man’s game. The average footballer at a decent club earns more in a week than the average supporter will earn in a year. And that feeds the need for higher ticket costs, and oodles of merchandise that every true fan really needs. The cheapest ticket for a Man U home game is £99, and an authentic replica shirt will set you back £89. And yet, the support for these clubs is fanatical. Read the comments on a football club forum, and you’d be amazed at the level of passion displayed. I don’t understand why someone would gleefully hand over their hard-earned, recession-dented cash to a rich prat like Wayne Rooney. But they do – in their droves. Maybe I’ll never understand it.  But at least the people I’ve spoken to about it (some of them Man U fans themselves) don’t understand it either.

But following the Cricket World Cup, I think at least I’m beginning to understand the psyche of the football fan supporting the English national team. Every World Cup, they show up with expectations that this year will be different. This year, their team will fulfill potential, and make it somewhere. They’ll beat those Germans, thrash the Dutch, and sneak past the Spanish to lift the trophy. And yet, they never do, usually crashing out in a penalty shootout.

The parallels to South Africa should be obvious to anyone who watched last Friday’s game. Every four years, we also believe that we’ll do it this time. On paper, we always look mighty competitive, and we can usually beat any team in any other setting. But give us a knock-out match, and we fall apart near the finishing line and give the match away.

Perhaps I should start a Sports Supporters Support Society, so the devastated supporters of the two countries could help each other deal with the endless disappointment. This could work well due to the timescales involved – England supporters should be over the 2010 football loss to Germany by now, ready to be a shoulder for South Africans to cry on in 2011. Who should in turn be able to be a pillar of strength by the time the 2014 World Cup comes along.

The final step would be to include New Zealand Rugby supporters would complete the triangle. We’ll have to wait until later in the year to see if they *really* deserve a spot in this exclusive club.


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