Making Heroes out of Contenders Turns Britain into the Sick Man of World Sport
One theory is that the good British sports gene, the one that made world-beaters like Sir Roger Bannister and Gareth Edwards and Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Nick Faldo and Sir Steve Redgrave and Lord Sebastian Coe, has gone missing. Despite the mounds of recent evidence in places like South Africa, Wimbledon and St Andrews, it isn't true.
This has not, of course, made the details any less depressing to record, starting with the worst England football performance in living memory in Cape Town against Algeria a few weeks ago and the subsequent evisceration by Germany, Andy Murray's no-hope mission against Rafael Nadal and the absolute failure of the nation's best golfers to make the smallest dent in the confidence of the previously unknown Open champion Louis Oosthuizen.
The best our highest ranking player, Lee Westwood, could do was claim authorship of the new hero's nickname, Shrek, while Paul Casey, who some fancied to walk in the footsteps of Faldo, put in a performance not of growth but a major shrink.
However, the problem isn't the gene. There is plenty of evidence that home-grown specimens still have the potential to compete with anyone. Spanish footballers are not inherently superior to ones made in England. Wayne Rooney, the most conspicuous failure in South Africa because his innate talent is so great, has been described by Arsne Wenger as the best English player he has ever seen, and some of his performances last season were quite luminous in their vision and their touch and their power. Murray has produced considerable evidence that he has the means, if not the will, to win a Grand Slam title. Casey has a lovely range of golf skill.
So why have we become the sick man of world sport? How is it that the unheralded Oosthuizen can whip the much-heralded cream of British golf with such ridiculous ease? Why does Murray turn into a near pillar of stone when the nuances of competition reach their peak? Why was Fabio Capello, one of the most successful coaches in the history of football, who had worked so successfully with England for two years, so plaintively admitting he did not recognise his team when the big questions were being asked last month in places like Cape Town and Bloemfontein?
It is not the gene, it is the culture. It is the propensity to make heroes out of contenders. It is the endless celebration of mere potential. It is the myth-making that established such as Steven Gerrard, particularly, and Frank Lampard as two of the world's greatest midfield players when the self-evident truth was that not only were they incapable of shaping a team performance at the international level, they could not even work together without looking like hopelessly diminished versions of the players of impact in club football.
There is no apology here for returning from time to time to the ferocious sentiments of Faldo, a catastrophic Ryder Cup captain but a golfer so far ahead of the rest of his British generation it was often embarrassing. At the last Ryder Cup in Louisville he was so far out of his depth there were times when you wanted to plug your ears and screen your eyes, but there was maybe a reason for this. The Ryder Cup is a place where demands on the individual golfer are diminished in favour of the team concept. When Tiger Woods was beating everyone in sight, he couldn't grasp the point of team golf and nor, you have to suspect, could Faldo, not deep down.
Shortly before defending, successfully, his first of three US Masters titles, Faldo said, "To be the best in the world you have to hit a million golf balls... and then you have to hit another million to stay there, and that's what a lot of British sportsmen and women, a lot of the public, just don't understand. The first bit is the easiest part of it. The second is tough. It really demands to know what you have inside you."
Maybe, though, something has snapped in the sports culture so given to celebrating relatively minor achievement. …