Mark Steel: Here's how to teach football some humility

Change has happened when people have accepted that they're useless


Chris Hoy and Steve Redgrave must be put in charge of public services immediately. Because the argument that the Government makes all the time – that essential cuts in funding won't harm the quality of whatever they're cutting – they lost their bottle with it over Olympic sports didn't they? Cameron didn't have the nerve to say to Sir Chris, "As of next year, funds for cycling will be cut by 60 per cent, but this shouldn't stop you winning gold medals as you can attract finance from other sources. For example, while Bradley Wiggins is whizzing round the time trial, he could deliver some parcels for FedEx. Use your imagination."

And they didn't dare say to Sir Steve, "You'll have to be more efficient. Some boats took eight rowers at a time, but others only took two, so those ones have to learn to cut out waste by squashing up a bit and fitting in a few more."

But there may be another reason why some British sports have performed well recently, which is that they were transformed by people who accepted we'd been useless, and knew they had to change the sport's whole structure. This is the opposite attitude to the world of English football, which believes it's marvellous no matter what the results. So if the FA had been given the job of running the rowing squad, they'd have just yelled, "We've got a great chance because we're ENGLAND, and the fact we usually sink and go in the wrong direction doesn't matter because we've got the best rowing league in the WORLD so let's revive the spirit of 1908 when we last won and get behind the lads."

Another sport the national football team could learn from is cricket, which could only improve once it accepted it was dreadful. At first, even when England fell to the bottom of the world rankings, the attitude of the cricket authorities was, "We shouldn't take any notice of losing 376 games in a row as you can prove anything with statistics. The main thing is we discovered Africa so I can't see Australia keeping up with us this summer". Finally, it was accepted that we weren't very good and the process of creating a winning team could begin. But English football carries on, insisting against all the odds that this time we have a real chance, and then making an excuse such as, "Guess what we've found out. It turns out the manager was FOREIGN. He never told us at the interview, the dirty cheat."

In many ways, our football is a symbol of an old Britain, dominated by bullying attitudes we wouldn't accept anywhere else. It's unlikely a school would allow dads to stand at the edge of a maths exam yelling at their kids, "CANCEL OUT THE X FOR CHRIST'S SAKE, now divide it, DIVIDE IT." Which may be why so many people are thinking, "Oh, no, football's back – surely there's a bit of Olympic wrestling still going on?"

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