England into first major final since 1966

Ecstasy: Harry Kane's extra-time penalty rebound goal means Three Lions face Italy on Sunday. © Getty

Do we learn more from victory than from defeat? The country is delirious with joy after beating Denmark 2 – 1 last night. But experts say it is not winning but losing that makes us stronger.

The hopes of millions were hanging on the game. All around the country people had spent the day in agonies of anticipation. This was the semi-final. This was England’s chance. Would they rise to the occasion?

They would. Despite Denmark’s best efforts, England could not be stopped. If football has not come all the way home, it is a good deal closer now. The Three Lions will face Italy in the final. No England team has achieved such a feat in Gareth Southgate’s lifetime.

When people say that football is a matter of life or death, they are not exaggerating.

Researchers have found that more babies are born nine months after a major football victory, and fewer born after a defeat. Crime rates go down in the euphoria of winning, and violence rises when a nation loses.

No wonder, then, that politicians have been cheering. Last week, the UK premier Boris Johnson posed in the middle of a giant St George’s Cross draped across Downing Street.

In his poem, If, Rudyard Kipling praised those who can “meet with triumph and disaster And treat those two impostors just the same”. The evidence from football suggests that this is hard to do. What experts claim we can do, however, is treat both as an opportunity to learn.

One reason Napoleon Bonaparte is often said to be the greatest general in history is that he could see what his victories had in common: movement. His rapid manoeuvres were copied for nearly 100 years.

Like Napoleon, the Dutch football manager Rinus Michels had a key insight that transformed the game forever: football is about using empty space. After he won the European cup for Ajax, he went on to use his new tactics to lead the Dutch national team in 1974 to its first world cup final.

Some have even taken their success in one field and transferred the lessons to another. The author Toni Morrison was the first Black woman to be an editor in an American publishing house. Her successes drove her to greater heights in her own writing.

For many, however, defeat is when lessons are really learnt. When the Roman republic suffered a humiliating defeat at the battle of Aurausio in 105BCE, Gaius Marius saw that the army needed reform. The new Roman army, known as the Marian legions, helped Rome to become a mighty empire.

Likewise, when Henry Ford’s Detroit Automobile Company went bust, he realised that the cars he made were too expensive. So, he came up with a car that middle-class Americans could afford. The Ford Model T went on to revolutionise the industry.

Perhaps the most serious reckoning with defeat came in Germany after World War Two. Because of the horror of the war and of the crimes they had committed, Germany rethought its entire culture. The Germans now have a word for confronting the lessons of the past: Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

Do we learn more from victory than from defeat?

Win or lose

Not at all, say some. Victory makes you lazy. If you think you are doing well, you will not work to improve. Defeat forces reflection. You have to think about what went wrong and what you might have done differently. Everyone has to fall over before they learn to walk. Besides, failure is inevitable sooner or later. The most important lesson is how to live with defeat.

Of course, say others. Defeat is such a blow to your self-esteem that it is hard to learn anything from it. Studies have shown that people do not learn well from feedback when they have failed at a task. The pleasure in victory helps you focus on what went right – and even what went wrong. While you can learn from others’ defeats, your own are hard to see objectively. To learn, you have to put the experience of defeat behind you.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather be lucky or talented?
  2. Is overconfidence better than low self-esteem?


  1. After watching the video of Michael Caine read If. In pairs, discuss whether you want to be like the person described in the poem.
  2. Read the article by Ned Beauman about Samuel Beckett’s so called inspirational phrase “fail better”, then look up 10 inspirational quotations online and use them to compose a sad poem.

Some People Say...

“There are some defeats more triumphant than victories.”

Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592), French Essayist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that not every victory is worth celebrating. The Greek king Pyrrhus defeated the Romans in the battle of Asculum but lost so many men that when one of his courtiers congratulated him, he said that “one more such victory would utterly undo him”. This gave rise to the phrase Pyrrhic victory, which means a victory in name only, or one which feels like a defeat.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate concerns what statisticians call the hot hands fallacy. In basketball, it often seems as if a player who scores once will be more likely to score again, and therefore has “hot” hands. For a long time , statisticians argued that this was an illusion, that previous success does not influence future outcomes. However, recently more evidence has suggested that hot hands do exist, and that games of skill are not like coin tosses, and that the more you win the better you get.

Word Watch

Joy so intense that one loses oneself in it.
St George’s Cross
The prime minister standing atop an England flag did not go down terribly well with some in the other constituent nations of the United Kingdom, especially in Scotland.
People assuming a false identity.
New tactics
Known as Total Football, the philosophy is that any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in a team.
Greater heights
Morrison won the Nobel prize for literature in 1993. Her novel Beloved is often named as one of the greatest of the 20th century.
The word means the process of overcoming the past and could perhaps be literally rendered as “working through the past”.

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