In 2009 I travelled to the tiny island of Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia to fulfill my lifelong ambition of coaching a national football team.
The reason I chose Pohnpei was simple: they were semi-officially the worst football team on the planet. They had never won a match and were beaten 16-1 in their last outing to near neighbours Guam, hardly footballing giants themselves. I reasoned that even a player of my modest abilities could be a football leader there on an island of unadulterated sporting failure.
The result was 18 months of battling torrential rain, toad-infested pitches, lethargic government officials, sunburn and boils, which culminated in leading a Pohnpei team to Guam on a mission to win their first ever game.
Back in England, the Pohnpei experience stayed with me and I have been researching the experience of failure in sport. My main interest is not the occasional disappointment but regular, persistent failure and how it influences self-esteem.
This summer the nations of the world go head to head at the Olympics. How will their athlete’s performances affect each nation’s collective psyche and sense of identity?
It is likely that not all nations will respond in the same way to losing. After cruelly falling short of the Tour de France title in 2009 and 2010, Australian cyclist Cadel Evans was dubbed a ‘whiner’ by his countrymen. In contrast, England’s most popular snooker player of all-time is Jimmy White, famed for losing six World Championship finals and never winning one.
Since 1966, English football history has been a catalogue of noble failures with no greater example than the penalty shootout. While David Batty, Chris Waddle, Gareth Southgate and Stuart Pearce may have been haunted by their personal failures from 12 yards, England’s defeats on penalties have been mythologised and embraced to the point that they have come to represent a very facet of Englishness.
The English have made a virtue of failure, taking barely disguised pride in being ‘unlucky’. What’s more, this identification with failure extends to suspicion towards those who are more regularly a success. Nations like Germany, who fare much better on penalties, are unjustly portrayed by English football fans as cold, ruthless and efficient.
What is it that drives this national identification with sporting failure? Does it extend to other areas of life? Why don’t other nations indulge in it? And is there any virtue in embracing failure? These are the questions I’ll be discussing with my co-speaker, Oliver Burkeman, at The School of Life on 20 June. Oliver will be sharing insights from his new book The Antidote, where he argues for an alternative, ‘negative path’ to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity and uncertainty.
So, if England is eliminated from Euro 2012 on penalties shortly afterwards, will you take a secret pleasure in it?
Paul Watson is a journalist and the author of 'Up Pohnpei: A quest to reclaim the soul of football by leading the world's ultimate underdogs to glory' (Profile, February 2012). Together with Oliver Burkeman, he'll lead our event 'Is Failure an Olympian Virtue?' on Wednesday 20 June. For more information and to book click here