The culture of English sport teams
Russell Degnan

"Only an English team could win from there"

So said the commentators last week after Liverpool's win in the Champions League Final. Milan had been equally shaky against PSV, but then they had been outplayed, winning because that's what Italian teams do.

But Liverpool was something else. It reminded me of the duel on Rob Roy. The sharper, nimbler swordsman weathering the haphazard attacks of his opponent and cutting him to ribbons when countering. Kaka was the key there, running the ball out of midfield into the middle of Liverpool's defence. It was awesome stuff and the half-time lead was no more than they deserved.

Somewhere in the English psyche though lurks the passionate anglo-saxon-celt, and even if Liverpool (like Milan and everybody else) is a team of foreigners, for whatever reason the culture remains.

And yet the passionate Englander is a contradiction. Because in England -- more than anywhere else -- sport is taught by teachers. And even if Wellington's comment that "Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton" is apocryphal; at some point, those same teachers recognized that charging at an army like a maniac is likely to get you impaled on the point of a bayonet. And so, the culture of English sport -- team or otherwise -- is not the passionate maniac; nor is it elegant, cultured, dashing or daring. Instead it is precise, technical, and often, boring.

The typical successful English batsman is a Barrington, a Boycott, an Atherton, or of late, a defender par-excellence in Strauss. The typical bowler is a naggingly accurate medium pacer. In tennis, it is Tim Henman; solid, disciplined and utterly lacking in flamboyance. The football team is built on a solid, rigid, disciplined back-four, and more often that not: long balls to a clinical striker. And as for Rugby...

It is not a bad tactic, nor even something I disagree with. You have to admire the persistent pressure a good English side applies. Holding a defensive position yet pushing inexorably forward, waiting for the cracks to appear so they can carefully prise them open.

Australian teams are similar in a way. England is always Australia's great rival, and so every Australian sportsman or woman imbues a culture of inferiority to the English discipline. Australians always play as underdogs; they thrive on the pressure to play above themselves. So while the Australian cricket team is relentless in applying pressure and waiting for their opportunities, they complement that typically English approach, not with a clinical war of attrition, but by going on the attack the first chance they get. The Australian sportsman that get remembered are mentally tough, passionate and aggressive: Alan Border, Steve Waugh, Pat Rafter, Lleyton Hewitt. Eventually, the football (soccer) team will have similar players.

But back to England. As effective as this approach can be, it is boring. And England fans are always passionate. Out of this comes the other side of English sport: the passionate flawed genius. The player who can't be coached, is infuriating, inconsistent and often trouble; yet provides that something extra. The Gascoigne, Botham, or (Irish but playing in England) George Best.

And so each generation, English teams try and get away from their true gift: their ability to slowly crush the opposition with sustained pressure and a sound defence, and place their faith in a new Messiah. Liverpool fans will remember Steven Gerrard for his drive and energy in those seven minutes that won them an extraordinary final, instead of the team's defensive excellence against Chelsea and Juventus that preceded the final. English cricket fans will place their faith in Freddie Flintoff to inspire them this summer, instead of the rest of the top six. And Tim Henman won't win Wimbledon regardless of how he plays. But that is because of Federer rather than poor Tim.

Culture 30th May, 2005 02:21:21   [#] [0 comments] 

Selling out your sport
Russell Degnan

It never ceases to amaze me that sporting administrators routinely choose the highest bidder when selling television rights. Money is no doubt important, as it is one of the major sources of revenue, but is not the only thing by any means.

This week, the English Premier League did a deal with Fox Sports that sees SBS lose both the game per week and the highlights package. But television is more than revenue, it is advertising, and in the case of free-to-air, it is good advertising (even on SBS). If the overall interest in the Premier League drops because of a lack of coverage - and it almost certainly will - how much will those teams lose in merchandise sales?

It does however give Soccer Australia an opportunity - when they have a competition that is. They are another organisation that sold their rights, to channel Seven, for piddling coverage, and no real commitment. The NSL lost coverage on SBS, in favour of a very late night highlights package. It continued to flounder along until its mercy killing, but hopefully the lesson has been learnt. What sports - particularly marginal ones in Australia like soccer and basketball - need is coverage first and foremost. Other advertisers would follow if you locked a major network into prime-time coverage, but as the NBL has learnt (even as netball is jumping ahead on the ABC), noone is interested in an invisible game.

But, back to the Premier League. Australian's have no special attachment to the English game. It could well be usurped by whatever SBS find as an alternative, be it the Serie A or the Primera Liga. And it will serve them right.

Culture 28th August, 2004 23:16:31   [#] [0 comments] 

Local sport and their local council
Russell Degnan

Gideon Haigh wrote an interesting article yesterday on the plans Moreland city council - God bless 'em, I'm glad I'm moving - has for Coburg Cricket Club. Or rather, what they don't have planned. Gideon is obviously biased, being a player of cricket in the same sort of localised, historic club as Coburg. I am too, so I won't bother stating what I think of it.

However, I will comment on the nature of local councils and their sporting organisations in this day and age. There was obviously a time, before councils merged, and were told to be efficient - or at least pretend to be - when a club could go from year to year, paying their ground rent, occasionally asking for a bit of club room maintenance, but otherwise ignoring the council and vice-versa. That time is finished.

Haigh has written before about this. From a cricketer's viewpoint the key line is this one:

An office bearer of one club I spoke to recently told me of a meeting where two councilors wondered openly why they had a local team at all: cricket, it was well known, was an elitist activity.

This is rubbish of course, cricket clubs tend to reflect the area they reside in, which is why mine is mostly students, young singles, professionals, and an assortment from a half dozen countries. But councilors don't necessarily know what is going on, and they have a tendency to come from a less than diverse range of places. Cricketers for instance, do not have time to run for local council.

Until two years ago my club had very little contact with the City of Melbourne who own our ground, until they put out two strategy documents. The first was on green issues; I wrote to them to comment that if water-saving was an issue on playing fields they should talk to the local clubs because they were over-watering our ground.

The second was on local sport in general. The draft said outright that individual activities were growing where clubs weren't and bordered on recommending the move and removal of sporting clubs in favour of running tracks and general parkland. My club responded to a some of the issues raised, and put to the council that they were not consulting clubs enough - if at all.

The response was two fold, and it is something that all clubs need to keep in mind. One, we meet with the council far more often, which was very useful during the recent water restrictions, but means in general that we have much greater idea what is going on. And are much less likely to be thrown off our ground in favour of the local soccer club that also uses it. Two, we have been more active in the community we are part of. This hasn't been entirely successful - it is much harder than it looks - but it is the attitude that counts.

Sporting clubs in Melbourne can no longer afford to stay independent of their local council. A lot have been shunted, or moved, often at great cost to the club itself, and in an insensitive way. They really need to step up and show why they are so important to the community - because they are - otherwise incidents of random politics will keep killing them off.

Culture 22nd August, 2004 23:22:34   [#] [0 comments]