The sports narrative tightrope and the fallacy of ‘playing well’

Welcome to Tuesday Team Talk. Every week, the H+K Sports team will give a unique perspective on the week’s football action and the stories making the headlines across the beautiful game.

Two England teams playing 16,656km apart, in very different sports against very different opponents, but the narratives surrounding the England football and rugby teams over the last week give a fascinating insight into our inconsistent approach to sporting narratives and the national team.

In England's three games at Euro 2016, and most notably after last night’s game against Slovakia, there has been a consistent theme from ex-players and commentators that England have ‘played well’, despite being completely incapable of turning possession into goals. Their dominance in possession and creation of chances seen as a sign of quality that surely means this is a good England side, about to flip the script and become a dominant footballing power.

But this idea of England ‘playing well’ is, if you dig into it, pretty illogical. In stark logical terms, the ultimate aim of football is to score goals (a requirement of winning games) and therefore a team incapable of achieving this goal (like say England at this Euros) can’t by definition be considered to be playing well. They aren’t succeeding at what they are trying to achieve. England hasn’t been playing well because they haven't been hitting the ultimate point of the game, but the narrative still persists.

Compare that with the effort of the England rugby team Saturday morning in Melbourne. By the same logic that the football team have dominated three games, England's rugby side were utterly thumped by Australia. Astonishingly England made four times as many tackles as Australia, a crazy number that represents the fact England were on the back foot for most of the match. However, taking the lead from Eddie Jones description of it as a ‘rope-a-dope’ win, their effort has been considered a tactical masterclass.

The cause of this difference is pretty clear; it comes down to the result. Narratives aren't objective, they are shaped by the voices we listen to and constructed in a way to provoke the greatest emotional response. When you succeed, fans love to be filled with hope, to see your every move as a sign of overall quality and future success sure to follow. When you lose, fans vent their disappointment on the team and blow up every flaw.

The England football team goes into the last 16 with their perception on a knife edge. Lose, and their misfires in the first three games will become the dominant narrative, win and the same dominance will be seen as a sign of what is to come. The same performances, seen through a totally different lens. This is the life of an England athlete, always walking a narrative tight rope. 

James Fenn

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search