Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate
soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.
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Earlier this year, my indoor cricket team reached the Final of its competition. We're no superstars (this was, after all, the second division at a suburban indoor cricket centre) but we're all competitive and we all want to win.
I didn't play badly but I didn't star either. My team batted first and we posted a reasonable score. Our opponents did better, however, and with two overs to go (for those of you in non-cricket countries, an over is a set of six deliveries all bowled by the same person) they only needed around 8 runs to win. That put them in the box seat because scoring an average of 9 or 10 runs per over is the norm in this form of the sport.
It was my task to bowl the second-last over. I knew that victory wasn't beyond us but that I'd have to do really well if my side was to stand a chance. I started my run up for my first delivery and then something rather frightening happened - my arm tightened up and I released the ball as if it might have been a hand grenade. The result was a wayward delivery and the batsman scored 4 easy runs from it.
Great start! I've still got 5 balls to go and already our opponents only need another 4 to win. I tried to compose myself and my 5 remaining deliveries weren't too bad. But I was still too tight and by the end of the over, we had fallen behind. No fingers were pointed in my direction after our defeat. Although my last over was poor, I'd had a reasonable game and we were, after all, well behind the 8 ball at that point.
But what happened to me when I bowled that over? OK. I choked. It wasn't quite in the same league as Jana Novotna at Wimbledon in 1993 or Greg Norman at the US Masters in 1996. Or various Dutch footballers taking penalties in a shootout. Still, our defeat was made inevitable by my loss of composure.
Now, why did it happen? Well, I had already played in two indoor cricket Finals in the previous two years and was on the losing side in both. It's fairly frustrating - being in a team good enough to make it that far but never finishing on top of the tree. I didn't want it to happen again but, crucially, I feared that it would. I struggled to remove that fear from my conscious mind and I was inhibited (or perhaps tortured) by it.
Of course, I'm not (and never have been) a professional sportsman. There was no money at stake and no reputation that mattered to anyone other than me. We play for fun, fitness, pride and a cheap, unglamorous trophy. The next day, we go to work.
Professional sportsmen and sportswomen also have to deal with psychological highs and lows, despite their talents. In fact for them, the pressure can only be greater - money, contracts and really nice trophies are at stake. Often, even national pride is on the line.
When I bowled that fateful over, I was haunted by history. Fortunately, it only mattered to me and, despite my disappointment, I went to bed safe in the knowledge that it wouldn't cost me a dollar and I wouldn't read about my failure in a newspaper or watch a TV pundit suggest that I'd let the country down.
When, however, Jana Novotna was one point away from taking a 5-1 lead in the deciding set of the 1993 Wimbledon Ladies' Final against Steffi Graf, her mind, consciously or subconsciously, was surely wrestling with the fact that: she had previously lost matches when she'd had a big lead; she had never previously won a Grand Slam tournament; she was facing an awesome 4 time Wimbledon winner; and millions of people were watching. Novotna, a beautiful player, would eventually win the coveted title but not before capitulating against Graf and then losing a second Wimbledon Final (which she also led).
Greg Norman went in to the final day of the 1996 US Masters with a 6 shot lead over Nick Faldo. Had anyone dared to predict a Faldo victory at that point, it wouldn't have been by more than a stroke or two. Faldo completed the course in a masterful 67 strokes but Norman, who at times must have felt that he was holding a cabana rather than a golf club, shot a woeful (by his standards) 78 and lost by 5. That day, Norman had to deal with the fact that he had already been a runner-up in the Masters on two occasions - both in heartbreaking circumstances. Norman had never won a US "Major" title and that would have been particularly disappointing as he was, for a long time, the world's Number 1 ranked golfer. I think we can guess what went through his conscious and/or subconscious mind as he saw his lead over Faldo diminish.
This brings me to the Netherlands and its footballers. Let's not beat around the bush here. Despite producing so many extraordinarily talented players and teams, the Dutch are (almost officially) the world's worst penalty takers when it's time for the high pressure shootout. Their overall record in the European Nations Championship and the World Cup is played 4, lost 4 (1992 Euro semi-final v Denmark; '96 Euro quarter-final v France; '98 World Cup semi-final v Brazil; 2000 Euro semi-final v Italy).
The shootout against Italy was particularly disastrous. Why? Well, firstly, they lost to Italy - another penalty shootout tragic. Add to that, 3 failures from 4 penalties taken. If you include penalties taken during the match, the Dutch missed 5 out of 6. Unbelievable. Of the 4 above-listed shootouts, the Euro 2000 effort was the most catastrophic.
If the Dutch capitulation is inexcusable, the pressure the players would have been under is identifiable. A place in the Final was at stake, they were in front of their home crowd and would have known all about (and in some cases participated in some of) the 3 previous shoot-out failures.
But I think something else might also have been at work - national psyche.
The Dutch, I'm sorry to say, simply aren't used to winning football tournaments. (And I am truly sorry because I'm a fan.) Their solitary success was in the 1988 Euros. That in itself isn't a criticism because, when you consider the Netherlands' relatively small population, it's fair to say that the nation punches well above its weight in international football.
[If you're from the Netherlands and you were disturbed by the penalty shootout statistics, you might want to take a deep breath before you continue reading.]
Let's combine the Euros and the World Cup. The Dutch have reached the last 8 of either tournament on 10 occasions (all, staggeringly, within the last 30 years). They've made it to the last 4 on 7 occasions and reached the Final on 3 occasions. I suggest there should be a couple more trophies in the cabinet given that record. Many of those teams, if not most, had the talent to win (and as we know, 4 of them were eliminated on penalties).
But maybe Dutch players consciously or subconsciously carried the weight of previous failures on their shoulders. Maybe that sense of failure is ingrained in Netherlands' national psyche. Maybe it makes the hurdles to the next trophy look like mountains.
It is not impossible that the trend can be reversed. Netherlands, again, goes into next year's Euros as one of the fancied teams, rich with talent. The ghosts of past international tournaments, however, will not be helpful.
If there is such a thing as a collective national sporting psyche - and I suspect there is - the Dutch can always look elsewhere for inspiration. They are well up the medal tally at both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games and, as many Australian sport fans will testify, when the orange shirts are in full cry in international (field) hockey matches, they are arguably more frightening than they are on the football field.
Twenty years ago, an event in a sport helped to transform the way Australians saw themselves. Ironically, it was a sport that few of the captivated audience in 1983 followed or really understood - sailing. Yet in the early hours of 27 September of that year, about 6 million sleep-deprived Australians (around 40% of the country's population at the time) sat glued to their televisions as Australia II won the deciding America's Cup race and broke the United States' winning streak of 132 years - the longest winning streak in sporting history.
Few Aussies will forget the outbreak of euphoria that followed that famous win. Australia was a different country before the white boat, with its revolutionary winged keel, sailed into history. Put simply, we didn't have the kind of national confidence and self-belief that we have now.
Just over three years later, the Cup would be lost and, since then, Alan Bond, the entrepreneur that funded the 1983 challenge, has been in and out of gaol. But that didn't change anything. We had taken on the world's most powerful nation on its territory and defeated it - and for well over a century, all that came before us had tried and failed. If we could do that, surely we could do anything.
Australia's national psyche changed. It is no coincidence that we have become a greater sporting menace since then. Far more medals at Olympic Games, unprecedented success for our cricketers and rugby players, etc. We may have failed in all our recent attempts to reach the FIFA World Cup finals but, with the probable exception of the 1993 qualifiers against Argentina, I doubt the Socceroo players ever entered the playing arena believing that they couldn't make it - hundreds have had professional careers in Europe throughout the last two decades.
Could the events of November and December have marked a similar turning point for England?
Since 1966, success in our sport has proved elusive for the country that gave us the modern game of association football. Plenty of international trophies have been won by English clubs but the national team always seems to be a little short of being a genuine contender. England's "years of hurt" are well documented and have been shared in other sports. Considering that England gave us cricket, tennis, both rugby codes and countless other sports, its repeated failures must be particularly galling - and lamented, perhaps even by less patriotic Englanders.
Enter Clive Woodward, Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson and friends. If you don't recognise the names, they're the men who spearheaded England to victory in last November's Rugby World Cup. In so doing, they gave England its biggest sporting triumph since ... 1966.
And they did it the hard way - outside their northern hemisphere comfort zone and needing to overcome the home team, Australia, in the Final.
In the following month, hundreds of thousands of the team's joyous compatriots lined streets to see their heroes parade the William Webb Ellis trophy for the very first time.
Could those scenes have given belief to other English sportsmen and sportswomen? Might the euphoria help transform England's national psyche?
If a national psyche exists, and if England's rugby triumph has had an impact, maybe, just maybe, England's footballers might gain the extra grains of self-belief needed to become champions at Germany 2006. Or Portugal 2004.
We shall soon find out.
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