The fickleness of the English sports fan

Glorious defeat is considered more wholesome than underwhelming victory
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The Independent Online

What a strange, schizophrenic nation we are. Or nations. Wherein, of course, lies the schizophrenia. It's one thing to be British, quite another to be English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish. Or Manx, for that matter. The English have their delusions of superiority, the Scots their sense of victimhood, the Welsh their pessimism laced with hope, the Irish their optimism laced with despair. I'm not sure about the Manx. Perhaps a combination of all four.

What a strange, schizophrenic nation we are. Or nations. Wherein, of course, lies the schizophrenia. It's one thing to be British, quite another to be English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish. Or Manx, for that matter. The English have their delusions of superiority, the Scots their sense of victimhood, the Welsh their pessimism laced with hope, the Irish their optimism laced with despair. I'm not sure about the Manx. Perhaps a combination of all four.

Rarely are these characteristics magnified more than in the sporting arena. We English think we should be pre-eminent in whatever sporting endeavour we undertake: that our cricketers have been under the Australian cosh for so long seems like a reversal of the natural order of things. This almost Darwinian sense of supremacy has been fed by the rise and rise of the England rugby union team, which thundered its way to the Six Nations Grand Slam earlier in the year and entered the current World Cup as the bookmakers' favourite. So what is this gnashing of teeth I hear, following England's ill-deserved but ultimately emphatic 28-17 victory over Wales on Sunday?

Yesterday's back-page headlines - The Independent's referred to coach Clive Woodward's "fury" with England's "follies" - underlined another complexity in the English character. Those delusions of superiority are by no means straightforward; glorious defeat is considered more wholesome than underwhelming victory. From Woodward down, supporters of the England team have been talking since the game of the heroic Welsh, and of the unworthy, ragged English. Some cynics have even pointed out that the fightback from a 10-3 deficit at half-time was inspired by the overwhelmingly South African Mike Catt.

In all other countries, Catt's essential foreignness would only be highlighted had he failed; in England it is because he succeeded that we remind ourselves he is not truly one of us. Similarly, we struggle to embrace Lennox Lewis, the world heavyweight boxing champion, because he speaks with a Canadian accent. He's unlikely to straighten out those vowels, but if he could just get himself knocked about a bit more, like Frank Bruno, that would do the job.

Meanwhile, Jonny Wilkinson, the young fly-half who before this rugby tournament was described in positively messianic terms, with an e-mail joke doing the rounds in which he turned up in heaven to find God sitting in his chair, has suddenly been cast, even though he kicked almost all England's points on Sunday, as a guileless ingenue in search of direction. "So much for Jonny as a World Cup titan," concluded this newspaper's excellent rugby correspondent, Chris Hewett, yesterday.

What this demonstrates is not just the fickleness of the English but also an almost pathological inability to be satisfied. Last week, Tim Henman finally won a seriously big tennis tournament, the Paris Masters, but it was not seriously big enough. Only Wimbledon will do, and even if Henman wins there, we will be lamenting the scarcity of young English players good enough to follow suit.

As a sporting nation we live in the shadow of a triumph almost 40 years ago. We didn't know it then, but when England's footballers lifted their World Cup, it was not only as good as things had ever been, it was as good as things would ever get. All subsequent success in football, such as reaching the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup, has been measured against 1966 and found wanting. And success in other sports has, to a regrettable extent, been measured against football and found wanting.

It is for the above reasons that the English get up the noses of the Scottish, Welsh and Irish, whose rugby fans arrived home from Australia this morning to find us still beating ourselves up about the way our team has reached the World Cup semi-final.

In The Independent's sports pages yesterday I rued the tendency of Scots to root against England on big sporting occasions. Among the e-mails I received was one from a Welsh reader, who suggested that most Celts only feign this anti-English sentiment. "Really, we hope England will win," he wrote. "It's our big guilty secret." I replied that as big guilty secrets go I have Scottish friends who would rather confess to an extramarital affair with a farm animal than cheering for England in a rugby or football international.

Whatever, England's World Cup caravan now moves on to Sydney, where on Sunday Woodward's team will take on the dynamic French. As a dimension of that British schizophrenia, and pace my Welsh correspondent, half of Scotland will doubtless be supporting France, muttering something about the "Auld Alliance", although as a Glaswegian pal of mine once told me, "It's only in Scotland that you hear anyone talking about the 'Auld Alliance'. Mention it to a Frenchman and he hasn't a bloody clue what you're on aboot."

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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