The daft sentimentality of the British sports fan

Why do the British love a charismatic loser so much?

We Brits have a very strange attitude to our sporting heroes. Andy Murray’s face doesn’t fit with the British public - and not just because it rarely breaks into a smile. Murray threw us all last week because he succeeded in reaching the Wimbledon final. Not through fluke or guile or an improbable defiance of the odds. He succeeded simply by being brilliant at what he does. Which, according to the public, was a little bit dull and annoying. I hosted a phone in on a national sports radio station straight after the semi final last Friday where 90 per cent of callers said they’d be supporting Roger Federer in the final. Why? “Murray’s a bit miserable and scruffy” was the general response.

This is a quintessential characteristic of the British sports fans. We are immersed in sentiment, preoccupied with personality and yearn less for cold, efficient victory than we do for the dramatic romance of defeat.

Every British sports fan is forever waiting for that Gazza moment: the emergence of a maverick figure, rendered great by instinctive talent not methodical coaching, and driven by volatile emotion not clear-eyed will to win.  But what really immortalized Gazza was that he often wore comedy fake breasts and sometimes cried. The images of him doing so were captured forever and held dear to every football fan’s hearts. The loveable fool, the genius man-child, the wide-eyed idiot savant, stealing emotional collapse from the jaws of a glorious triumph. This is the sporting narrative that has obsessed the British public ever since.

But the truth is that Gazza was a failure. He showed glimpses of what he might have become back in 1990 but, from the moment he burst out in tears that night in Turin, he never came close to fulfilling his potential ever again. That’s why he is loved and romantiscsied so much. He could have been like his German counterpart that night, Lothar Mattahus, who went on to lift the World Cup before triumphing in a succession of other tournaments for club and country. He was not cheeky, daft, charismatic or given to stumbling drunk out of kebab shops in full view of the paps. And that was no coincidence either. He was a winner, so he went to bed early and trained hard every day. That kind of application doesn’t play with the British public the way it does with the Germans. Perhaps it’s because the British public see something slightly vulgar in winning.

We love charismatic losers like Gazza, Jimmy White, Alex Higgins, George Best and Frank Bruno. The rogues and chancers who blew their talent – or just weren’t quite that good enough. The real winners we have produced, from Steve Davis to Linford Christie to Lewis Hamilton to Lennox Lewis, have been deemed too dull and robotic to fully qualify for our affections.

We like our sporting icons to be ‘human.’ That is to say we like them to be flawed, ordinary, dumb and often drunk. Perhaps it was possible to be ‘human’ and successful a few decades ago, when international footballers could turn up five minutes before kick off smoking a fag with a fried breakfast inside of them and still bag a hat trick. But sport is more serious than that nowadays. There will never be another Gazza because someone like him would be lucky to be playing in the higher divisions of non-league football nowadays. Being ‘human’ and being successful are now mutually exclusive characteristics.

We Brits regard sport as a soap opera: everything must be richly infused with sentimentality and melodrama. According to the outraged critics who condemned Stuart Pearce over the matter, David Beckham should have been part of the Team GB not because he was one of the best British footballers available but because he was an icon, a patriot and a man who addressed television interviewers with an appealingly boyish politeness. This is the X Factor generation, who want their sports stars like their talent show contestants: either tragic, or comic, or both  - and with a back story that can be neatly encapsulated in a ninety second montage to the accompaniment of a Coldplay track.

But of course, Andy Murray should not have to wear fake breasts, eat a kebab or perform hilarious impressions of other tennis stars in order to convince us he is human. The ins and outs of his character shouldn’t be here nor there to any of us who love sport for what it is: a contest of physical prowess. Unfortunately, too many Brits regard a serious demeanor to be alienating and objectionable rather than an admirable sign of a winning mentality. Yes, Olympic Gold Medals are all very well for other countries. But over here, nothing quite matches up to the dubious prestige of the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year.

Sam Delaney writes for The Guardian and is a host on talkSPORT. Follow him on Twitter @delaneyman

 

Andy Murray: good at tennis, but "a bit miserable and scruffy" for our tastes. Photograph: Getty Images

Sam Delaney also writes for The Guardian, The Big Issue and numerous others.  He is the author of two books: ‘Get Smashed – The Story Of The Men Who Made The Ads That Changed Our Lives’ and ‘Night Of The Living Dad.’ He has written and presented documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4 and is a host on talkSPORT radio.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.