For a comparatively small nation spreading its resources across a broader spectrum than any other, we do astonishingly well

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A temptation last week was to take the 9-1 various bookmaking establishments had on offer against England winning any of three major sporting encounters.

Rob Andrew's stupendous effort against Australia in the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup justified unusual prudence in this matter, but home defeats inflicted on England by footballers from Brazil and cricketers from the West Indies demonstrated in striking fashion the quite ludicrous extent of British aspirations.

Leaving aside the cultural fragmentation that allows for four national teams in football and rugby and prevents an even distribution of strength, it is unquestionably arrogant to assume that because the most popular games were exported from these shores we should be the best at them.

One of the things you are required to deal with in this business is being leaped on by patriots wielding the ignorant notion that faliure in sport amounts to a national disaster. They are blind to the fact that for a comparatively small nation spreading its resources across a broader spectrum than any other, we do astonishingly well.

Last week England took on the rugby world champions, the football world champions and a cricket team that held that status until recent losses to Australia. On the same day prominent British drivers were at work in the Canadian Grand Prix. This week British golfers are among the favourites for the US Open championship. For all his apparent despair, Linford Christie is expected to remain a force in the world track and field championships along with the hurdlers, Colin Jackson and Sally Gunnell. The perennial inquest into the shortcomings of British tennis will soon be with us.

To paraphrase a statement made in rather more dire circumstances, nowhere is so much expected of so few by so many.

In that context, England's two losses from three attempts last week was nothing to get bilious about. On the contrary, elsewhere it would have been considered a noble effort. Australia are among the highest achievers in sport and the contrast in emphasis provided by Brazil and the West Indies serves to underline the point I am making.

A few Brazilian athletes, boxers and tennis players have made an impact internationally but a passion for sport is concentrated mainly on football and motor racing. While Jamaica has bred outstanding athletes and boxers, West Indians generally retain a powerful instinct for cricket.

We can take this further. Shortly after West Germany defeated the Netherlands in the 1974 World Cup, their coach, Helmut Schon, speaking personally, pointed out the disadvantages of diversification in sport. "It is unlikely that we would have been able to build this team, to have players like Beckenbauer, Muller, Breitner, Overath and Vogts if there was a greater concern in Germany over other sports," he said. "There is a growing interest in tennis and of course we have fine athletes and people who excel at winter sports, but the importance placed on football has been a great advantage. The fact that England have not qualifed since beating us in the 1966 final does not suprise me. When energies are spread across such a wide area, winter and summer, I think it is almost impossible to be a power in one game."

Last week, Brazil's coach, Mario Zagalo, expressed something similar. "We can no longer call upon the passions of 25 years ago, but football in Brazil still stands above every game," he said. "In England there is so much else going on. Our interpreters have pointed out that most of the space in the newspapers is being given to rugby and cricket, games that are a mystery to me. So much going on. If that was the case in Brazil, we would not be four times the world champions."

By now, the extent of Britain's sporting endeavours are so taken for granted that nobody thought last week's glut of competition, also involving Scotland in the Rugby World Cup and the footballers of Scotland and Wales in qualifying matches for next year's European Championship, exceptional.

The sting, of course, is in brutally adverse reaction when results do not come up to quite ridiculous expectations. No nation has a divine right to succeed in sport, not even the one that thought up most games in the first place.