England arrive home after another battling defeat

England’s thwarted heroes react to a winning penalty from Italy © Getty Images

Another penalty shootout, another quarter final defeat: England’s exit from Euro 2012 follows an all too familiar pattern. But in Britain, heroic failure is celebrated almost as much as success.

Hands in the pockets of their matching blue suits, England’s footballers grimaced bravely as they left their hotel in Krakow, Poland. Once again, the team had exited a major tournament on penalties. Once again, they arrived home to a disappointed nation.

The story was already a familiar one in 1996, when the football anthem Three Lions on a Shirt was released. ‘Everyone seems to know the score,’ went the lyrics, ‘they’ve seen it all before.’ Sixteen years and five penalty shootout defeats later, the wait for a trophy continues.

Still, England’s dejection was mixed with pride. Italy had out-passed and outclassed them; but against all the odds, they had staggered on until the final hurdle. ‘We’ve done our country proud,’ captain Steven Gerrard said, ‘but we go home heartbroken.’

As England’s players boarded their flight, back in London the annual Wimbledon tennis tournament was getting underway. Here as well, the British story is one of near misses. Despite many hard-fought campaigns from Tim Henman and Andy Murray, there have been no British champions since 1977; in the men’s draw, none since 1936.

Britain has long had a soft spot for noble failure. It was the theme, for instance, of the famous Charge of the Light Brigade. After a tragically misunderstood command, over six hundred cavalrymen galloped toward the enemy in a futile dash.

Hundreds died. But despite being a military debacle, the charge was immortalised in a stirring poem by Alfred Tennyson.

Then there is the great British hero Scott of the Antarctic. After a better-prepared Norwegian team beat Scott to the South Pole, his expedition came up against merciless weather conditions. Along with all of his companions, Scott died of exhaustion and cold. Yet this failed quest is more celebrated than almost any of Britain’s successes.

Even Alfred the Great, who conquered the Vikings and unified England, is remembered chiefly for an embarrassment: his most famous act was to burn the cakes of a peasant woman who gave him shelter.

Stiff upper lip

Many Britons believe that defeat brings out their finest virtues: humility, resilience, stoicism. In other cultures, failures might cause bitterness; in Britain they are greeted with courage and trademark humour. Winning a football match just shows you are good at football, they say; it takes character and spirit to lose like a hero.

But other nations are baffled by this embrace of failure. Trying hard and falling short is all very well, they say; but surely victory is the ultimate prize. All this revelling in near misses and tragedies is irrational and defeatist.

You Decide

  1. Which is better: an undeserved victory or an exciting, tightly-fought defeat?
  2. Should failure ever be celebrated?


  1. Imagine an athlete who represents the qualities typical of your nation, and list their characteristics.
  2. Write a poem about England’s defeat to Italy in the style ofCharge of the Light Brigade.

Some People Say...

“Second place is first loser.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Whydo England always do so badly at football tournaments?
Actually, that might be a misconception. A statistician recently conducted a study of footballing nations, in which he measured footballing success against factors like population, economic strength and investment in sport. He found that England have actually performed slightly better over the years than we ought to expect. So perhaps they are over-rated rather than underachieving.
Any idea why?
It’s probably an extension of what psychologists call ‘illusory superiority’: the near-universal tendency of humans to overrate our own abilities. Over 93% of people believe, for instance, that they are better than average at driving – which is, of course, logically impossible.

Word Watch

Alfred Tennyson
Alfred Lord Tennyson was born a commoner, but promoted to the baronetcy by Queen Victoria, who was an enormous admirer of his poetry. He is one of England’s best-loved poet laureates, famous for writing short, rhythmic and exciting verse. The Charge of the Light Brigade is probably his most famous work.
Burn the cakes
According to the ancient story, Alfred was hiding in rural Somerset after suffering a defeat at the hands of Norse invaders. Disguised as a commoner, he found shelter at a peasant’s cottage, and she asked him to watch her cakes while she gathered wood. But Alfred could not take his mind off the cares of the kingdom, and the cakes burned – his hostess was furious.
The original ‘stoics’ were a group of Greek philosophers in the 3rd Century BC. They believed that true philosophers were free from extreme pain and passion, because they could understand the unchangeable laws of nature and sought only to control themselves. Nowadays, anybody who remains firm in the face of misfortune is called a ‘stoic.’


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