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   [#]