Passion and Commitment vs Skill and Composure

I never meant it to be a central theme at this site. You can blame the press that it has been. It was their myth after all – that the kind of feelings fans experience watching football are the same feelings that the team needs to have on the pitch in order to win.

It’s hard to argue against, because it doesn’t come from argument or from thought. It comes from other things – category errors, footballing exceptionalism, football-as-soap, football-as-war, the myth of the inspirational manager.

The inspirational manager became the central point at issue. Then we had the bizarre spectacle of people on the one hand pooh-pooing the existence of football’s psychological side, on the other lambasting Sven for a perceived failure to enact that non-existent psychological side.

We’d agree, wouldn’t we, that for most sports, what you want is to keep your nerve, apply your strengths, keep going and put failure behind you as quickly as possible. In most sports, we want our representatives to show a concentrated, determined calm, and we want them to keep trying until the end of the event.

Except in football. There, we want – at least, the vocal amongst us want – a traditional captain shouting at his players, we want Churchill in the dressing room at half time, and we want – those ever-changing other things that we want.

There’s something violent and punitive about all that, isn’t there? Always someone on the receiving end of something, whether a speech, a rant or a kick up the backside. I suspect that it’s always the same sort of people who urge on this kind of thing – that they think they are the salt-of-the-earth, university-of-life, common-sense ones – that they think they speak for the silent majority – that if they aren’t paid attention to, then they should be. I think they are the ones who crack under pressure – who can’t stand being isolated – who spend their time laughing too loud at the rest of the world with the boys in the crowd. Gents – and it’s mostly gents, if I’m not stretching the definition of gent too far – you’re hollow.

Is football different? So very different from this, say?

Because here’s a little slice of football, don’t you think, in the form of McEnroe, up against the ideal sportsperson, in the shape of Borg. Back in the ’70s and early ’80s, I was just a fan, of whatever I could find on television or in the park, and I was first for Connors and then for McEnroe. This was partly underdog support – Borg was just better than the pair of them – and partly a reflection of Borg’s pulling power. Girls liked him; I was a boy, so I liked his opponents. And I never quite got over the fact that I really enjoyed the kind of behaviour you could expect from Connors and McEnroe. And from the young Agassi after them.

Is football so different from other sports that the kind of mental state that flourishes in every other sport – including boxing – is to be mocked and derided? Or is the difference in our attitude towards football – is it that we don’t want it as a sport qua rowing or athletics, but a kind of national ritual to display what we hope are still our native characteristics? Even if those characteristics – all that bulldog stuff – mean that we fall short against teams who are prepared to be clever, or cunning, or even just prepared to pace themselves?

Thierry Henry said this week that his young Arsenal side now had the character to win titles. Did he mean that they had decided to become eleven Danny Millses? If not, what did he mean? That their skill had ceased to matter? That they had learned to toss tactics into the bin for the last fifteen minutes of every game and lump it up to the big man? That Henry himself was going to do a Gerrard and spend those last fifteen minutes hopelessly out of position, peppering the goal with hopeful long-range shots, seeking to be a hero? That they had all shaved off their hair and were now bawling at each other constantly? Or did he mean that they had learned faith in themselves sufficient to keep their shape for the whole length of the game, to keep on playing their way, confident that they can thereby come through often enough to make a difference?

So, heart-on-sleeve passion against calm and control. The tie-break continues:

I suppose it’s inevitable that of the three men – Borg, Connors and McEnroe – it’s been the latter who has been taken to the English bosom, and it’s been the latter who has reflected most usefully on his career and experiences.

There are three points to take from McEnroe, to be distinguished from the points we’ve just seen Borg take from him. First, that social background and wealth have no impact on sporting desire. McEnroe came from a family who’d be considered extremely wealthy over here. (For that matter, Frank Lampard’s weren’t exactly poverty-stricken, nor Michael Owen’s, and I could go on). Second, that you can care too much and that can lower the quality of your play. Third, that “personality” is less effective in the big arena than none at all. McEnroe was number one in the world for a long time – but how many like him have been, compared to men like Federer and Sampras? The greatest tennis players have been the cool heads, or, like Borg and Agassi, have made themselves into cool heads. Brad Gilbert is trying the same thing with Andy Murray, with notable success. Oh, and tell me about Murray’s poverty-stricken background and good traditional working class values while we’re on the subject. No?

McEnroe wins the tie-break, but loses the match.

McEnroe is loved here now not because he was a great champion, or a beautiful player to watch, although he was both. He’s loved because he has said the right things to us late in the day, and because, through the window of time, his personality-driven “performances” have become the subject of comic nostalgia. And it’s nice – that niceness that’s part of the genuine pleasure of watching Wimbledon, or almost any UK broadcast golf.

I noticed yesterday that the DVD of the 2006 Ryder Cup is out. Here’s what’s written on the cover:

It has been called the greatest Ryder Cup in history and surely none of the tens of thousands present at The K Club, or the one billion people watching the event live on TV would disagree!

For noise, passion and emotion The 36th Ryder Cup, played for the first time in Ireland, is unmatched. Europe, with arguably their finest team performance ever, made history by winning the Samuel Ryder Trophy for a third successive time.

From the courageous Darren Clarke, who was carried along on a wave of home support, to the sensational Sergio Garcia and Colin Montgomerie, once more the heartbeat of the European team, Captain Ian Woosnam had a dozen dynamic heroes. Just as at Oakland Hills, two years earlier, the American side were again overwhelmed by the record score of 18½ points to 9½.

I swear this nonsense is spreading. Mark my words. It’ll be chess, next. And then it’ll be fishing.

6 Replies to “Passion and Commitment vs Skill and Composure”

  1. James, I really like this post. One of your best. Not that I agree with it all. In our society everyone is either a salesman or a customer (Or in my case a bystander) Emotions sell things. People get emotional. Things get sold. (No-one is happy) Class is a red herring. Salesman/customer. Just my opinion.

  2. I’m not sure it’s spreading and I don’t think it’s ever been a uniquely British phenomenon. I dare say many sports fans in many countries are attracted by the emotion as much if not more than the skill.

    Certainly cycling is full of heroic lore going back right to its beginnings. Plucky Raymond Poulidor or Serene Jacques Anquetil was the non-question of the 1960s? Likewise in the 90s, Miguel Indurain was a cool calm and collected winning machine but Claudio Chiappucci and later Marco Pantani’s emotional mountain escapades won them hearts, if not so many titles.

    Laurent Fignon is a perfect example. When he won his first Tours with almost arrogant ease he wasn’t much liked. Admired perhaps but not necessarily liked. Too clinical by far. That and he was a Parisian as opposed to a salt of the earth, horny handed son of toil like the Breton “farmer” Bernard Hinault. It wasn’t until the great 1989 Tour when he lost to Lemond and collapsed onto the Champs Elysees’ cobbles that the French took him to their bosom.

    I’m sure it isn’t the case but it sounds like you want a sterile sport with no room for emotion but I guess you’re really calling for balance.

    Ideally you’re seeking successful panache.

  3. I haven’t explained myself at all. My point is that spectators using what they feel as a way to interpret a match is similar to the way advertising asks to respond to their messages.

  4. I might not have explained myself either. I’m trying to draw a distinction between what sports fans and commentators would LIKE to be the essentials for victory, with what the evidence suggests ARE the essentials for victory. It’s the difference between what sports fans watch sport in order to feel – and what sportspeople need to feel in order to win. Stephen Hendry vs Jimmy White is another case in point, but doesn’t Youtube as well as McEnroe-Borg.

  5. Just watched England v Spain. The Spanish control the ball better and pass it on more quickly, before they are robbed. I suspect that I could have typed the same sentence 30 years ago.

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