Inviolable right to be arrogant

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WHENEVER something occurs to put British sporting efforts in an unfavourable light somebody is bound to advance the notion of a national disgrace that should be addressed by no lesser body than our elected representatives.

The most disturbing thing about the turmoil of public debate frequently whipped up by the media in such circumstances is the arrogance that fuels it.

The inference of patriots who respond angrily to disappointments, especially when the England cricket and football teams are involved, is that the inventors of games retain a divine right to succeed at them. This speaks not only of arrogance but xenophobia and residual imperialism, even if it overlooks the powerful fact that some of the most significant figures in British sport have their roots in the old colonies.

Self-restraint is not of course a recipe for selling popular newspapers and as they are no more discriminate than a scatter-gun when apportioning blame we should all take a deep breath before coming to a conclusion.

The one reached here is that for such a comparatively small nation the British are better at games than is often imagined. This takes into account the number of aspirants with genuine talent and the wide range of major sports that draw from them.

For example, the summer so far has seen England striving against Australia at cricket, the Lions in New Zealand, the England football team in the United States, Scotland and Wales on rugby tours and the usual short-lived British presence at Wimbledon. This week high hopes are held out for Damon Hill in the grand prix at Silverstone and next week Nick Faldo, the world No 1 golfer, will defend the Open Championship at Sandwich.

At the World Athletics Championships next month Great Britain, placed second recently in the European Cup, will be represented, among other outstanding performers, by the reigning 100 metres Olympic champion, Linford Christie, and the 400m hurdles gold medallist, Sally Gunnell. For the first time this century, a British-born boxer, Lennox Lewis, holds at least a share of the heavyweight championship.

Leaving aside the United States, who rarely engage in the passions of international sport, and apart from Australia, no other nation takes on such a diversity of sporting endeavour.

Look elswhere and you will find what I believe to be a significant concentration of effort.

In Germany little intrudes upon football and tennis. Given their efficiency it is therefore not astonishing that the Germans have won the World Cup three times, appearing in six finals as well as taking two European Championships, and are usually in serious contention for the major tennis titles.

The Lions in New Zealand took on the representatives of a nation that traditionally subordinates every other sport to rugby.

Even the French, who divide their winter between football and rugby, and have a passion for cycling and motor racing, are not continuously geared to ludicrous expectation.

Thus the debates that surround British sport can only be heard in a context already referred to. Arrogance. To ask why English cricket appears to be in decline is not merely to question the Establishment but to presume inviolable rights.

The possibility that England will fail to qualify for the football World Cup finals next year in the United States unquestionably relates to a mindless system, but only for a brief period in history could they think themselves a great power in the game.

I am thinking now about a World Cup qualifying tie England played against Switzerland in Basle in 1981, when a 2-1 defeat resulted in an outbreak of violent behaviour by their supporters. Sickened by this response I immediately contacted my employers, the Sunday Mirror, to update the story. It caused an appropriate stir, but less so in the mind of one executive who, in the role of fan, conveyed the impression that somehow I was to blame for England's defeat. 'You tell me how we can lose to a bunch of clockmakers and waiters,' he snarled. Being Welsh I had a ready answer to that but not to the absurd chauvinism that continues to pervade sport in this country.