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14 Jul 2021

The spectacle of sporting failure

The sight of England’s heartbroken young team at the end of the Euro2020 final reminds us how narrow the line is between defeat and victory.

As our hearts go went to these young men who tried yet failed, we are reminded of the pressures and intensity we all have to face in our lives. The game also challenged us to put things into perspective, however difficult that may be after the emotions of that night, in the same way that we must deal with life’s disappointments when they inevitably arrive.

Kipling perhaps put it best:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same

Southgate and Saka

The pressure to succeed

Sport can also remind us of the importance of learning to cope with the pressure to succeed, of resilience, and how not to lose heart when your best is not enough. Many young fans watching the game on Sunday will be going through something similar, as they wait for exam results that may determine their futures.

Fresh from her A levels, 18-year-old Emma Raducanu stepped onto Court Number One at Wimbledon for her fourth-round match. It was the first time she had appeared on a show court in front of thousands of spectators.

Such had been her success over the previous week that she had even begun to challenge the England team for the attentions of the sporting public. But after losing the first set she appeared to falter, took a medical break and retired from the match.

Her challenge will be to learn from this experience, however painful, and return stronger and more capable of meeting future challenges. She can gain comfort from the fact that there is not a single sporting great who has not suffered a crushing reversal or defeat.

In October of last year, after long struggles with serious illness and whispers that his career was over, Mark Cavendish took a minimum wage job riding for one of the Tour de France teams, securing a return to the race he last appeared at in 2018.

Just hours before England and Italy took to the field at Wembley, Cavendish won his fourth sprint finish of the Tour, equalling the all-time record for stage wins at this, the most prestigious of cycling races. Few would bet against him surpassing this record on the final sprint along the Champs-Elysée next Sunday.

Learning from defeat

It is worth remembering that it is seldom the victories from which we learn and grow, but the defeats that offer the chance to reassess and return better equipped for the next challenge.

In 1997 a callow 19-year-old English rugby player took to the field against Australia in Brisbane. What followed remains the heaviest, and one of the most humiliating, defeats an England rugby team has ever experienced. They lost 76-0. That day he missed two easy penalties.

Not only did this young player have to cope with such sporting lows, but he also struggled with his mental health, especially anxiety, obsessions and compulsions, which robbed him of many of the joys of life. But six years later in the Rugby World Cup final, Jonny Wilkinson drop-kicked his team to victory in extra time.

And that is the beauty of sport, it continually offers us lessons in hope – and chances of redemption. After all, for our fallen heroes of Sunday and for their many admirers and supporters, the FIFA World Cup in Qatar is little more than a year away.

Image: Gareth Southgate and Bukayo Saka. Credit: Getty Images


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