Brian Viner: German mind games? I know just the chap to calm English nerves

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

Franz Beckenbauer has accused England of resorting to kick-and-rush tactics in this World Cup and in fairness to him, what's the point of being nicknamed the Kaiser if you can't provoke a row with the Brits?

It's amazing, though, that with a week of the tournament gone there's already a whiff of England v Germany in the air, further enriched by Wayne Rooney responding to Beckenbauer's insult by insisting that he would now like to play the Germans in the second round, which, their defeat yesterday notwithstanding, puts him in a minority of one.

Meanwhile, we at The Last Word have a proposition for the England camp; just in case that knockout match against Germany does come to pass, how about hiring a top psychiatrist to prepare our boys for the trauma of the almost-inevitable penalty shoot-out? Better still, why not make it a German psychiatrist? And not merely to annoy the Kaiser.

Poor old Podolski might have fluffed one yesterday, but in five penalty shoot-outs in major tournaments, the Germans have lost only once, to Czechoslovakia in the final of the 1976 European Championships. As for their subsequent successes, I hardly need remind you who their victims were in the 1990 World Cup and again in Euro '96. On Wednesday the BBC screened a retrospective of Italia '90, and it was instructive, if dispiriting, to be reminded just how good every German penalty was on that agonising night in Turin, fired unerringly into the corner of Peter Shilton's net. Chris Waddle, by miserable contrast, followed Stuart Pearce's miss by firing his spot-kick unerringly into the middle of row Z. So, who better to inject some of that Teutonic self-confidence into the fragile English psyche than a German, and funnily enough I know just the fellow: Dr Florian Ruths from Heidelberg, psychiatrist and cognitive therapist. Dr Ruths and I have a bit of previous. In 2004, writing about the great Hungarian side of the 1950s, I asserted that in the World Cup final 50 years earlier the Magnificent Magyars had been "unjustly" beaten by West Germany. Dr Ruths promptly sent me an indignant e-mail. My word "unjustly", he wrote, had been "a grudging, small-hearted comment about another nation's sporting heritage". He could easily counter, he added, with the suggestion that West Germany had lost the 1966 World Cup final unjustly. Nor had there been anything "just" about Bayern Munich losing the 1999 European Cup final, having dominated Manchester United throughout. And he didn't stop there.

He was particularly saddened by my "intellectual jingoism", he wrote, "at a time when the characteristics of English and German teams seem to be converging. Does not the England rugby team [then the world champions] essentially follow the classic German football blueprint of being boringly systematic but powerfully getting the job done?" It was a fair cop. In my column the following week I ate humble pie, with a small side dish of sauerkraut.

Since then, Dr Ruths and I have stayed cheerfully in touch. And this week I phoned him, to ask whether he could make any psychological sense of the unhappy English tradition in penalty shoot-outs, in which our record is almost the exact reverse of Germany's: only one triumph and five defeats? He said he could. He even said it would be an "honour" for him to address the problem directly with the players, and my firm advice to the FA is to fly him out now.

"The statistics on penalties show that for professionals there is about an 85 per cent chance of scoring," Dr Ruths told me. "So both teams should in theory have a 50 per cent chance of winning a shoot-out. But England's record is so much worse than that, so clearly something else is going on. What is it? It may be fear, the fear of losing. But why are they so fearful? Just because other England teams have lost penalty shoot-outs shouldn't mean that there's less than a 50 per cent chance in the future. Yet there is, because they may have in their minds the terrifying images of players being pilloried, of headlines in The Sun and silly pizza commercials, and that could lead to subtle performance anxiety.

"Steven Gerrard said something very interesting. He said after the USA draw that it had been really important not to lose that first game. What kind of attitude is that? It's an attitude of fear. Even though England had qualified so impressively, the fear of losing seems to be set in the English team's psyche." Which prompts a very big question; how to overcome it? Dr Ruths believes he has the answer. "One of many ways of dealing with even subtle performance anxiety is by looking at mental images. They need positive images. They need, before they step up to take a penalty, to have in their heads an image of the successful shoot-out against Spain in Euro '96, or even the England rugby players lifting their World Cup. Images of tangible success, not failure." All of which makes perfect sense to me, but then everything seems straightforward when you're sitting on a sofa. Or even, perhaps, lying on a couch.

Dictionary may be World Cup's biggest winner

The general consensus seems to be that the World Cup so far has been disappointing, with plenty of people citing as two of the reasons the incessant blowing of horns and the unpredictable trajectory of the new balls. On the other hand, think what the competition has already done for the English language. Two weeks ago, if anyone had suggested that vuvuzela and Jabulani would soon be household words, we'd have assumed them to be the Honduras full-backs.

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