Performance anxiety is a hazard in all skilled behaviour. Whatever the level of motor skills, and however much repeated practice is put in, it is an essential part of human nature to worry about what may happen, and to contemplate the possibility of failure. This is not all bad, since anxiety can be the spur to greater preparations, and to checking things which may go wrong. Things which may go wrong do go wrong sometimes, so it is better to reassure one’s self by testing them. The downside is that the ability to worry about what may happen may wash out natural ability, and supplant it with saucy doubts and fears which cripple performance.
The England football team feel cursed by penalties. The coach of the current England team, Gareth Southgate, still flinches at the memory of his own missed penalty shot decades ago, and reportedly has therefore ruefully given his team special training in this nerve-wracking final shootout. In actual fact, a footballer kicking from the penalty spot should always beat the goalkeeper, who cannot move over his line until the ball has been kicked. The goal is large, with four corners out of reach, so the odds are stacked in favour of the penalty taker. Easy. And therein lies the rub. Success is expected, and failure is more deeply shameful in this simple, one-kick task.
Since England qualified for the Euro final, national expectations had been sky-high. It is 55 years since England won the World Cup, and it seemed natural to hope that the golden prize would now return to its origins, a rightful homecoming for the sport that England gave the world. The nation was unified in patriotic hope. Even those not usually interested in the game suddenly took notice.
As always, there are some political and racial under-tones. Immigrant Muslim communities stressed their sporting loyalties, at a time when their national loyalty (living parallel lives) is in question. Black players who had come up from humble origins recounted their life stories, including over-coming racial barriers. The English team “take the knee” at the beginning of each game, so race and politics were heavily signalled. The unifying spirit of sport was often invoked, and seemed real.
The game itself began with dream-like England goal, one of the fastest in recent history. The English opening style was inventive, adventurous and emphatic. A beautiful goal to begin a beautiful game. Thereafter England continued to shine, but failed to score again against a bewildered and unsettled Italian team. An opportunity squandered. The second half belonged to Italy, who came out with new resolve, and were wily, professionally foul, more highly skilled, and finally scored again, a deserved outcome of their flowing game.
After extra time, the game had to be resolved by a penalty shootout, which to English ears is like being fitted-out by a hangman with your own personal noose. The English goal-keeper was a star, saving two penalties. The English penalty-takers should have won the match, but they blew it. Their legs turned to jelly. The curse is now confirmed. Whatever the English team achieves on the field, they always lose on penalties. Recriminations have already begun. Sending out youngsters to face this purgatory seems to have been unwise. Older more scarred veterans might have done better.
What is to be done? If the best England team for many year cannot learn to take penalties when their coach has his failure still stamped into his soul and it determined to expunge it, what hope for England ever? How can any practice truly simulate the reality of being personally responsible for an outcome desperately expected by your team, a massive 60,000 cheering stadium audience, 31 million watching it on TV and an entire nation hoping for the best?
Perhaps the solution lies earlier in the game. England has a creative, inventive and piratical past. It gave the industrial revolution to the world, and still has some animal spirits left. Perhaps the only salvation is to play the game as a game, with daring and abandon, as if they enjoyed it. England is or was a Protestant country, playing a nominally Catholic one. Perhaps the solace of confession makes Catholics live more easily, and not fear eternal damnation when they sin, or miss penalties. I doubt this, after the way French Catholics treat players who miss penalties, but this is the time for casting about for understanding.
The English might be also characterized as being wracked with guilt and shame. Better to fall unobserved in the heat of battle than to fail in a public examination, judged sourly by a whole nation. They were called before the headmaster, when they preferred playing football in the streets, and failed the exam.
Football’s history pre-dates the first written descriptions of 1170 “After dinner all the youths of the city goes out into the fields for the very popular game of ball.” It was seen as capable of rising tumults “from which many evils may arise”. It was often banned because of the violence it caused between villages. In many ways football with its rules and conventions is a semi-decorous substitute for warfare, with a symbolic home space in the goal to be defended against marauders. Better this than an actual war.
All is not lost. The nail-biting agony will be repeated next year, in the World Cup. There will be no shortage of opinions, and lessons supposedly learned from last time. It might be a time of hope, but this feels as if it was one of England’s best chances, and it slipped away, in caution, hesitancy and shame.