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13th March 2015

‘Heart’ Attack: British Sport’s Obsession With Passion Is Misplaced

Skill needs to be emphasized over singing, argues James Haughton

The England’s men’s cricket team defeat to Bangladesh consigned them to a group-stage exit, a sorry end to a miserable campaign. It is not just the cricketers, however, as England’s men’s football and rugby union teams suffered early exits from their last World Cups, and England’s women’s football side were terrible at the 2013 European Championships. After each one of those tournaments there were inquests about why such lacklustre results were achieved and what improvements were needed to rectify the situation, and the England Cricket Board will undertake a similar process after England’s final group game finishes.
But these post-debacle outcries highlight one of the main problems, I believe, with British sport: the tendency from some in this country to blame below-par performances on a lack of passion and gut, rather than on technique and tactics.
Take the men’s football team’s exit at the last World Cup. Much of the talk in the aftermath centred on the players’ supposed lack of passion. But I ask this? If these players, all millionaires, did not care, why would they spend over a month of their break in Brazil, often cooped up in a hotel and kept away from their families, knowing they will be pilloried at home if they fall below expectations?
If they did not care about winning the World Cup, they would have retired from international duty and been free from the scrutiny that playing for England brings. Each one of the England players wanted to win the World Cup because being a World Cup-winner is the greatest accolade that a footballer can achieve.
The Spanish and German squads that won the last two World Cups were full of multi-millionaires, so large wages are also not the reason why England’s players cannot win a World Cup, either.
What all World Cup-winning teams need are immensely talented players and coaches who ensure that the team is an expressive and cohesive unit. The Germany side that won last year’s World Cup contained players like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos; and the Australia side that won three consecutive cricket World Cups included such phenomenal talents as Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist. A dearth of world-class talents, especially creative ones, is what hampers England and the other home nations at major tournaments.
However, some still insisted with the notion that England lost in Brazil because of apathy, as if World Cup winners are chosen based on who can sing the national anthem the loudest. In the Daily Mail, Neil Ashton bemoaned the lack of England players willing to die for the country before losing a football match, and Stan Collymore (ghost)wrote an article for the Daily Mirror titled: “Passion, pride and belief: I dream of a day when our England players care as much as the Brazilians.”
However, it was plain to see that the Brazilian players were far too emotionally invested in the World Cup, with Thiago Silva, for instance, crying during the national anthems and turning into an emotional wreck before a ball had been kicked.
In the defeats against Italy and Uruguay, England lost because they were unable to create enough clear-cut chances against two resolute sides and the defence looked fragile whenever Italy or Uruguay attacked, exacerbated by the lack of a Javier Mascherano, who not only stops opposition attacks, but now regularly takes the ball out of defence and starts attacks for Barcelona, in midfield.
Talented English players have endured a chequered history with the national side. Michel Platini claimed that Glenn Hoddle would have played for France 150 times if he had been born in France. But Hoddle is English and only played 53 times for his country. John Barnes’s England career is famous for two things: his brilliant goal in the Maracana and his inability to replicate his club form for England more often. Plus, Matt Le Tissier only played eight times for England.
English sport’s obsession with passion and guts is detrimental in other ways, too. Until 2014-15, children as young as eleven played eleven-a-side matches on full-sized pitches; consequently, the emphasis for young British footballers was not on learning to skilfully navigate their way past opposition players, but on being able to quickly run long distances.
A lack of highly qualified coaches in this country also stunts the development of youngsters. In a Guardian article published in May 2013, Stuart James wrote that, “according to UEFA, there Germany has 28,400 (England 1,759) coaches with the B licence, 5,500 (895) with the A licence…” Consequently, in Germany there is a country-wide talent development players in which promising young footballers – some members of professional academies, some not – are trained and scouted by a network of over 1,000 coaches who have at least the UEFA B licence. This coaching and talent-spotting is not present in England, due to a lack of qualified coaches, so is it any wonder why the Germans produce more vibrant, skilful young players than the British?
It is not just football, however, where England have misused their most talented players. The obvious example is Kevin Pietersen, whose England career was as traumatic as it was record-breaking and seemed to be overly short for a genuine match-winner who scored over 8,000 runs in test cricket. Furthermore, England men’s rugby union side, under Stuart Lancaster, is seen as being functional and dependable but lacking the creativity needed to win a World Cup.
The desire to win does not need to be sacrificed in the pursuit of technical ability; in fact, an improvement in the skill levels of the England players – and hence the aesthetic quality of the performances – will lead to winning more matches, improving confidence amongst the squad and fostering a greater desire to play for their country.
I would go so far as to write that anyone in this country who chooses to blame below-par performances at major tournaments on a lack of passion is actually hampering the chances of future generations by diverting attention away from more fundamental issues. So instead, let’s concentrate on increasing the number of highly qualified grass-roots coaches and on eradicating the deep-seated mistrust in talented eccentrics that seems to be so prevalent within British sport.

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