Monday, 18 July 2011

The (multi)national pastime of choking

I am an avid English sports follower, in all three of the following senses:
a) a follower of English sports
b) an English follower of sports, and perhaps most pertinently, 
c) an English follower of English sports

So, when, in my imperial arrogance, I assume that we should be capable of winning every sporting event we enter and am subsequently let down but abject unlucky failure, I can't help but wonder why.

Links golf proving tough for Donald
I was most recently prompted to think about it by the entertaining British Open Championships. Well done Darren by the way. If we glance at the current world rankings, one can't help but notice positions 1 and 2 being held by Englishmen. Yet neither Westwood nor Donald seems able to perform much better in Majors than their slightly less orthodox namesakes may have been able to.

Westwood hits the decks
The last time an Englishman won a Major was Nick Faldo at the 1996 Masters so perhaps we're just chokers - even when we're the best in the world we can't win the biggest tournaments. When was the last time an English football team won a seriously tough match at a major tournament? You could say , Argentina 2002 with Beckham's so called redemptive penalty but that's a Tina that went out in the groups after failing to beat Sweden, certainly not Germany during Euro 2000 as they were eliminated with just a single point (against Romania) - so how far back do we need to go? Spain on penalties in Euro 1996, maybe the Dutch 4-1 during the group stages? Italia '90 it must be, we got to the Semi's, but played Cameroon (aet) and Belgium (aet) in the knockout stages. I am going to suggest the following:

England have not won a genuinely difficult and significant match in a major tournament since the World Cup Final of 1966.

As true as I believe that statement to be, it wasn't really the purpose of this blog. Rather than the typical English-sport-slating of every journalistic outlet in our green country (I mean literally, lots of grass & fields, not inexperienced, or jealous, or even environmentally friendly), I am going to suggest that a mental frailty or predisposition towards choking under pressure is no more of an English trait than football or tea are originally English inventions.

Who did Faldo beat in the '96 Masters? Greg 'The Shark' Norman - an Aussie. Famous for their determination to win, competitive mentality and strength of self-belief. Yet, leading by 6 shots going into the last round, he managed to play one of the worst final rounds seen until Rory's own version earlier this year. How could an Aussie choke like that?

In cricket, South Africa have consistently one of the strongest ODI teams, combining aggressive but reliable batters with economical but wicket-taking bowlers. They always have good numbers of all-rounders and are always among pre-tournament favourites. Yet they are always labelled chokers and always live up to their label as the tournament unfolds.

What about New Zealand? The All Blacks strike fear into the hearts of their opponents, and not just because of the Haka or Jonah Lomu - they are the strongest, fastest, most powerful and technically gifted rugby union team in the world and have been ranked No 1 in the world for nearly 3/4 of the entire time the rankings have existed. Yet every four years they somehow conspire to fail to win the tournament. We can only dream that this autumn will be the same old story.

USA's women were overwhelming favourites to win the World Cup a record 3rd time, but twice threw away the lead before producing 3 awful penalties to hand the tournament to Japan. Apparently "choke" is the wrong word so perhaps we'll just say that they bottled it.

Asafa Powell, one of the fastest men in history, regularly putting in incredible times, doesn't produce the goods when he's up against Tyson Gay or Usain Bolt - is he choking under the pressure of the big occasion? There innumerable occasions when other individuals or teams have collapsed at crucial moments. And, until only recently, the Spanish national team were routinely ridiculed for underperforming at major tournaments.

So my list of choking nationalities thus far includes the following: England, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, USA, Jamaica and Spain. This blog is already too long so I won't go on but I think we can safely say, it's not just an English thing. Is it about a bloody-minded, winning drive? Let me ask you... is that what this picture says to you?

Perhaps I'm sporting romantic (that's not a romantic person who's sporty by the way) but I reckon that in the end, talent will win. Spain are easily the best team and now they win everything. Rory choked massively at the Masters but proceeded to dominate the USPGA like no-one since Tiger had done. I'm no sports psychologist but it seems to me that if you are capable of winning, you most likely will.

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