True Bravery Lost in Football’s Hyperbole

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Manchester United fought like a brave Old Trafford side of old – it was their best display of the season.” ­Martin Keown writing for the Daily Mail

It is interesting how we perceive and use certain words. Bravery, what are the hallmarks of bravery and how is it defined?

In the Oxford dictionary brave is defined as: “Ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage.”

From 300 Spartans fighting to the death at the Battle of Thermopylae, to the Charge of the Light Brigade at the battle of Balaclava, throughout history acts of war-time bravery have consistently been immortalised. Today, in the absence of a prominent warrior culture, sport has become a de facto battle ground, allowing us to experience displays of sporting courage.

Of course we are often drawn into romanticised versions of bravery. According to legend, 300 Spartan’s defied the might of one million Persians. In actual fact scholars believe the Spartans were joined by a thousand Thespians and Thebans, while the might of Persia could only muster an army 100,000 strong. Spare a thought for the Thespians and Thebans who were not immortalised in the same manner as their Spartan brothers. Highlighting this is pernickety and undoubtedly the Spartan story personifies bravery. The point is, such tales lend themselves to hyperbole and sport, in particular football, is littered with examples.

“Evra and out for brave United.” – The Times Back Page, 10th April 2014.

Following Manchester United’s Champions League exit to Bayern Munich on Wednesday night, a recurring theme was noticeable. Listening to pundits, reading articles and trawling through twitter, words such as brave, valiant, admirable and courageous were being used to describe the Red Devils performance. It was all rather irksome.

Sporting bravery can take various forms, whether it’s physical, i.e. risking injury for the good of the team, or psychological, i.e. a gay athlete coming out and overcoming the trepidation of challenging stereotypes and barriers. So for a moment, let’s analyse the headline:“Evra and out for brave United.”  

What is the purpose of the word brave here? Barring Nemanja Vidic, who took one in the private parts to block Mario Mandzukic’s fierce shot and perhaps Patrice Evra’s goal, which was certainly audacious, it’s hard to pinpoint true acts of bravery during United’s performance. David Moyes didn’t drastically alter his tactics in order to deceive his opposite number – Pep Guardiola, nor did his team go toe to toe with the Germans and throw caution to the wind. You can hardly blame Moyes and United as the pressure in football is such that there is rarely room for fool-hardy acts of bravery. Thus why the word brave? It’s specious and redundant.

United’s performance was energetic (for 70 odd minutes). It was disciplined and organised until they took their ephemeral lead in the 57th minute. And it was certainly full of effort and endeavour, but that’s the least one should expect from professional players. However a brave performance? No, brave isn’t the word that should be used to summarise their defeat to Pep Guardiola’s side.

Words are important because they portray and betray the underlying beliefs and psyche of an author and the culture that author represents. In an interview with Sir Clive Woodward on BBC Radio 5 live, Queens Park Ranger midfielder, Joey Barton said.

“We love unlucky losers in this country. It’s our mindset. In football terms we are losers; we love the side that gets heroically beaten and hate sides that are successful.”

He may just have a point. A few months back I explored how the English mind-set can work to the detriment of the national team. How hopes and dreams are projected onto individuals and thus failures attributed elsewhere, eventually damaging the team’s efficacy. On this occasion, an English team’s disappointment and deficiencies were hidden under the guise of bravery. The term glorifies defeat and also reveals an inferiority complex which can have a pernicious knock on effect.

This conflates a number of issues. Firstly the word brave projects power onto the opposition. In other words Bayern are so omnipotent that only a lionhearted performance from United could have toppled the German giants, skill alone would not have been sufficient.

Granted Bayern are an extremely talented team, officially the best in Europe but Manchester United aren’t exactly minnows. If Hyde FC – currently bottom of the Skill Conference Premier – had played the reigning European champions then, perhaps, brave would’ve been apt. But this was a team that has hardly been parsimonious in the transfer market and despite their recent travails, possess a surfeit of talent. Thus inferring this was a brave performance, or an admirable defeat, implies the odds were overwhelming in the first place and this is neither conducive to self-belief nor taking responsibility.

On the other hand this rhetoric also skirts around the crux of the problem – the English Champions simply weren’t good enough. If you’ve ever studied psychology you’d recognise this as attribution theory. Admittedly there are times when all good coaches will take pressure off their players by attributing failures to external factors (referees, bad luck etc.). However there is a worrying trend in British culture to veer towards attributing super human qualities to the opposition. This creates an environment where, even stepping onto the field to battle the adversary becomes an act of heroism. Just look at Greg Dyke’s reaction to England’s World Cup draw, anyone would’ve thought Saint George’s boys were off to fight a dragon all over again.

This offers an interesting and somewhat contradictory psychological conundrum. On the one hand such language shows a damning acceptance of a team’s shortcomings, on the other it avoids addressing  inadequacies.

It’s fair to praise effort, although some pundits such as Roy Keane – the pathological  “truth sayer” – `would point out that effort should be a given. He is right and just because a team gives their all, this should not be misconstrued as bravery. It is a word thrown around with gleeful abundance in the footballing lexicon but more often than not, it makes a false comparison to true acts of bravery.

2500 years ago the Spartan’s hope was forlorn and they were rightly labelled brave. Last night Manchester United played a team superior to them and they were underdogs. However their hope was not forlorn. The numbers on the field of the Allianz Arena were even and for the 22 seconds they were in front, United were closer to winning their battle than the Spartan’s could ever have dreamed. United’s odds were considerably more favourable. Their task was daunting but achievable, not impossible. Their performance was determined but not brave. Bayern were good at the Allianz, but they weren’t Persia at Thermopylae.

One thought on “True Bravery Lost in Football’s Hyperbole

  1. I agree with this story.
    I support Nemanja Vidic
    I’m an Man UTD fan,I love Nemanja Vidic
    Thank you for information sharing

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