James Lawton: Making heroes out of contenders turns Britain into the sick man of world sport

The problem is a by-product of a culture which men like Sir Roger Bannister can only despise, where celebrity races so far ahead of achievement
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The Independent Online

One theory is that the good British sports gene, the one that made world-beaters like Sir Roger Bannister and Gareth Edwards and Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Nick Faldo and Sir Steve Redgrave and Lord Sebastian Coe, has gone missing. Despite the mounds of recent evidence in places like South Africa, Wimbledon and St Andrews, it isn't true.

This has not, of course, made the details any less depressing to record, starting with the worst England football performance in living memory in Cape Town against Algeria a few weeks ago and the subsequent evisceration by Germany, Andy Murray's no-hope mission against Rafael Nadal and the absolute failure of the nation's best golfers to make the smallest dent in the confidence of the previously unknown Open champion Louis Oosthuizen.

The best our highest ranking player, Lee Westwood, could do was claim authorship of the new hero's nickname, Shrek, while Paul Casey, who some fancied to walk in the footsteps of Faldo, put in a performance not of growth but a major shrink.

However, the problem isn't the gene. There is plenty of evidence that home-grown specimens still have the potential to compete with anyone. Spanish footballers are not inherently superior to ones made in England. Wayne Rooney, the most conspicuous failure in South Africa because his innate talent is so great, has been described by Arsène Wenger as the best English player he has ever seen, and some of his performances last season were quite luminous in their vision and their touch and their power. Murray has produced considerable evidence that he has the means, if not the will, to win a Grand Slam title. Casey has a lovely range of golf skill.

So why have we become the sick man of world sport? How is it that the unheralded Oosthuizen can whip the much-heralded cream of British golf with such ridiculous ease? Why does Murray turn into a near pillar of stone when the nuances of competition reach their peak? Why was Fabio Capello, one of the most successful coaches in the history of football, who had worked so successfully with England for two years, so plaintively admitting he did not recognise his team when the big questions were being asked last month in places like Cape Town and Bloemfontein?

It is not the gene, it is the culture. It is the propensity to make heroes out of contenders. It is the endless celebration of mere potential. It is the myth-making that established such as Steven Gerrard, particularly, and Frank Lampard as two of the world's greatest midfield players when the self-evident truth was that not only were they incapable of shaping a team performance at the international level, they could not even work together without looking like hopelessly diminished versions of the players of impact in club football.

There is no apology here for returning from time to time to the ferocious sentiments of Faldo, a catastrophic Ryder Cup captain but a golfer so far ahead of the rest of his British generation it was often embarrassing. At the last Ryder Cup in Louisville he was so far out of his depth there were times when you wanted to plug your ears and screen your eyes, but there was maybe a reason for this. The Ryder Cup is a place where demands on the individual golfer are diminished in favour of the team concept. When Tiger Woods was beating everyone in sight, he couldn't grasp the point of team golf and nor, you have to suspect, could Faldo, not deep down.

Shortly before defending, successfully, his first of three US Masters titles, Faldo said, "To be the best in the world you have to hit a million golf balls... and then you have to hit another million to stay there, and that's what a lot of British sportsmen and women, a lot of the public, just don't understand. The first bit is the easiest part of it. The second is tough. It really demands to know what you have inside you."

Maybe, though, something has snapped in the sports culture so given to celebrating relatively minor achievement. While some believe that Capello, for example, should simply be listed as just another, though excessively expensive, failure in the England job, at least as many again, and perhaps more, have reached another conclusion. It is that if Capello could not remind English professionals of their duty, and the requirement of heightened effort for a few weeks of their hugely rewarded lives, it is maybe a challenge beyond the means of any individual coach.

After the failure in Germany in 2006, one of the more bizarre reactions came from one of the generally more intelligent, and reflective, of the England players, Lampard. He said, as numerous player autobiographies piled up in the bookshops, that the England team deserved more respect. When England failed so abysmally to qualify for the last European Championship, Michael Owen fell into the same trap. He said that if you looked down the team sheets of the victorious Croatian side, and the beaten England, in every case you would choose the English players. It was a statement of breathtaking arrogance – and detachment from reality.

Perhaps the time when that kind of escapism is possible has gone. Certainly up in St Andrews there was no inclination to offer alibis to the British pros who had been so bullish about their prospects before Oosthuizen cut everybody down to size. In the wake of Murray's most recent demise there was also a widespread acceptance that Nadal was operating on an entirely superior level of performance. So it was in the World Cup, when the Spanish heroes Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez rendered the claims made on behalf of Rooney and Gerrard seem like the most threadbare of fantasy.

No, the problem isn't genetic. It is a by-product of a culture which men like Bannister and Edwards and Redgrave can only despise, one where celebrity races so far ahead of significant achievement and into which someone like Rafa Nadal, or Louis Oosthuizen, simply takes a giant's stroll. So let's forget about the need for genetic engineering and just accept that we are not as as good as we are so easily persuaded we are. That, at least, might be the first nudge away from the disastrous psychology of a second-class sports nation.

Anfield is in a mess – and it needs to be sorted out

The tide of angst flowing around Liverpool Football Club is reaching unprecedented levels, indeed to the point of worry that the city's entire nervous system is in danger of breaking down.

Maybe a little perspective should be applied. The club has been massively mis-directed, even by the dysfunctional standards that now so besmirch the once cheery, self-satisfied image of the Premier League, and there is no getting around this. However, certain realities are being missed. One is that the wrath swirling around the American ownership, wretched though it is, might be distributed a little wider.

Former chairman David Moores is defended as some cornerstone of a great tradition when it is pointed out, however quietly, that he sold out for much personal profit and with the kind of due diligence that would have given Sodom and Gomorrah a bad name. The same was true whenever it was suggested that Rafa Benitez's legacy, despite his striking early success, was perhaps not one to be written in the stars.

Liverpool Football Club is a mess, a scandal and an outrage to the tradition of men like Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan, and it needs to be sorted out. The fans, naturally, feel betrayed but they should correctly identify their betrayers. One practical step would be a boycott, one that bit, one that said that all the protests in the world do not equate with a little bit of serious action, and maybe a little sacrifice.

Players were the first to break trust

Fabio Capello's rating index misadventure would have been unfortunate in any circumstances, as hapless certainly as his predecessor Glenn Hoddle's decision to publish his diary in the wake of that earlier last sixteen bail-out, in France in 1998.

It is, however, morbidly funny to hear that some England players are angered by the situation, particularly in that it breaks vital trust between the coach and his charges.

The breaking of trust is, after all, in this case a matter of degree. The worst breakdown came when Capello issued his first team sheet in South Africa, then spent the rest of the tournament trying to identify the players he had selected. "I didn't recognise the England team tonight," he said forlornly in Cape Town. Unfortunately, most of the nation did.

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