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12 July 2012

The daft sentimentality of the British sports fan

Why do the British love a charismatic loser so much?

By Sam Delaney

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.

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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.

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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