Sport, politics, history: when the underdog gets revenge

I don’t watch sport of any kind either on TV or in the flesh.  For a start I found that I was getting too-uptight but more importantly I decided a long time ago that I preferred to be doing something rather than watching other people doing something.

It’s not that I don’t care about the results, I do.  In the case of the Welsh rugby team, very much so.

Which is why the Welsh victory over England on Saturday was so monumentally enjoyable.  The winning margin of 27 points surpassed the previous record for the encounter set 108 years ago.  In one recent season the only match which Wales won in the 6 Nations Championship was against England but that single victory expunged the rest of the season’s losses.

Why is that beating England is so deeply satisfying for the Welsh?  And the Scots?  And the Irish?

In part it’s the satisfaction of underdogs coming out on top.  Wales has a population of 3 million, England over 50 million so a far bigger pool of talent and resources on which to draw. Support for the underdog is a widely shared sentiment.  I was fortunate to be on a small Greek island when Greece won the European Cup (soccer) in 2004 having beaten big boys like France, the then holders of the championship, on the way to the final.  The celebrations reverberated for days including firepower from a warship parked in the harbour and dynamite let off on the roofs of houses.   Takis from the leather shop on the harbourside summed it up by saying “Large countries like England expect to win.  In Greece it happens once in a thousand years”.  And the celebrations were not confined to the Greeks, there was pretty universal support for the victory from the many nationalities visiting the island.

Two years later I was on the same island and the celebrations were almost as euphoric when Greece beat the USA in the semi-finals of the World Basketball Championship.  The, USA is the 3rd most populous country in the world with 315 million people, Greece has less than 11 million and is 77th in the table.   I dare say 35 million Canadians have much the same feeling when they beat the USA at ice hockey.

Underdog gallantry is one of the limited number of story lines of Hollywood films.  Underdog victories are very sweet.

However, a Welsh victory over England goes beyond that, rooted in historical resentment of conquest, occupation, and a deliberate effort to wipe out Welsh language and culture. “I support two teams: Wales and anyone playing England” is often quoted and passed off as a joke but there is more than a steely hint of truth in it. There is a folk-memory of corporal punishment and exclusion meted out to grandparents when they had the temerity to speak their own language when they were in school.

But it’s important that rivalry should not become enmity.  The thesis has been promulgated that one of the reasons why Britain has not been riven by civil war since the days of Oliver Cromwell is that we vent our spleen on the playing field.  That may be true.  It’s certainly true that we invent more games than anyone else ….. and then play them badly compared to other countries. But whether it’s true or not I feel deeply that the differences between us should be confined to the playing field and not spill over into separatist politics.  We can enjoy and celebrate our different cultures, even look back on our different experiences of history, without splintered politics, a real threat at the moment.  Particularly in a subdued economic climate dominated by major players like China, we should be focusing on what we have in common and not pretending that small is powerful.

At the moment Wales can bask in the reflected glory of having so soundly defeated England on Saturday.  And what is even better is that we can look forward to trying to do the same again next year.

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One Response to Sport, politics, history: when the underdog gets revenge

  1. Grasshopper says:

    It’s all that talk of grand slams, from the final whistle of the first game in the series. Same in every sport; there’s not another team around that more people like to see being humped, so sayeth the unbiased Scot. More to do with the media than the players methinks. Large Penderyn for that one though.

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