“Nice guys don’t win”, and other rhetoric

A fortnight on from the death throes of England’s dismal World Cup campaign, and the navel-gazing recriminations show no signs of abating. From the debilitating effects of Manaus, to the paucity of domestic talent in the Premier League (compared to the all-conquering set-up of, say, the Costa Rican or Chilean leagues) it has been the traditional quadquennial waft of hot air – achieving nothing bar further dissimulating Hodgson’s métier of cowardice repackaged as pragmatism. Yet amidst all this tired guff and hackneyed bluster, one cliché stood out as particularly egregious – Alan Shearer’s assertion that “we English are too honest.”

Of course, Shearer – less a talking head these days than a risible talking thumb – has form here, regularly championing the “diving is a foreign plague/not in our DNA” trope on Match of the Day. Yet, even if we selectively leave aside the dangerous pseudo-eugenics of this claptrap, the very notion that England’s increasingly habitual tournament failure is down to an innate superabundance of “honesty” is unambiguously ludicrous on two levels.

Primarily, empirically, theoretically, philosophically, whichever way you slice it, it is just not true. Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard, for example, have never shied away from the rough stuff. Raheem Sterling contains more strength in one buttock than your average post-Soviet weightlifting team, and is more than happy to put it to malicious use. Gary Cahill has undergone so comprehensive a process of Mourinhofication that he would happily boot a toddler up in the air if it secured an opportunity to head something clear at the near post. The idea that the England squad spend their days listening to Belle and Sebastian whilst thumbing through Paolo Coelho’s latest simperings is as ludicrous as it is erroneous.

Secondly, if we take accepted wisdom that the two best players in world football are Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the “too nice” theory is further undermined. Messi, in particular, has played up to his take-home-to-meet-the-grandparents qualities throughout his career – all floppy hair and bouncing off tackles like an enthusiastic toddler crashing into furniture. Likewise, Ronaldo who, for all his risible preening, could hardly be described as a hatchet man.

If, then, we accept the notion of England, or indeed any team, being too nice for success as a facile and inaccurate one, then what are we to make of it? What does it tell us about English football – and England’s – view of itself. Certainly, it speaks of the type of post-colonial smugness that still drips from every corner of the establishment – sporting, and political. An absolute refusal to countenance inherent flaws without viewing them through the prism of a presupposed moral superiority. Rubbish at football? Must be we’re too nice. Terminally in hock to a fundamentally flawed economic model? That’s our entrepreneurial spirit – nation of shopkeepers, and all that. Housing crisis? That’s our entrepreneurial spirit TOO! Nation of buy-to-letters, and all that. Phone hacking? Natural inquisitiveness. Establishment cronyism? Looking after old school chums. A veneer of ‘British values’ routinely lacquered over systemic faults, a watered down version of that loveable rogue Churchill’s addled justification of militarised imperialism based on moral superiority.

There is a further, wider, problem with such thinking, and that is that the notion that “nice guys don’t win” has increasingly become a cause célèbre for a generation of furiously embittered man-children. Witness the widespread social media pant-wetting about the striking mugshot of Californian convict Jeremy Meeks – which was taken by some (i.e. those whose agenda it suited) to be incontrovertible proof of a female conspiracy against them. “Why can’t girls be attracted to lovely soldiers” came much of the wailing – an absurd, and insulting, supposition of universality on both sides of the table. This “nice guys never win” notion has joined “I’m sick of being in the ‘Friend Zone’” as a go-to point for a prevalent and increasingly rampant passive-aggressive misogyny, the “nice guys” in question never stopping to wonder if their self-entitled tirades about “sluts” following each knockback compromises their self-image of shining armour. The self-pitying delusionality to the “too nice” trope here occurring on an individual, as opposed to national, level.

To unpack the semantics of the phrase, one must also ask what the supposed counterpoint is for this apparent niceness. What level of nastiness should our sportspeople aspire to? Just how shitty should they be in order to achieve success? Perhaps an answer can be found in the long-held theoretical Luddism at the heart of English football – a relentless harking back to the supposed glory days between the end of the Second World War and England’s failure to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. Whilst the reasons for this period establishing itself in the popular consciousness as English football’s Golden Age are as obvious as they are reasonable – post-conflict escapism, England’s solitary international victory, the dynastic narratives of Busby and Shankly and the first flushes of success for British teams in Europe – it’s hard to shift the sense that there has long been, more so now than ever, a fetishisation of the acceptable nastiness of the football that prevailed at this time. This was, after all, before violence was transferred from pitch to terrace; an age of granite-hewn men routinely booting lumps out of one another under the forgiving eye of lenient referees. Three decades of earthy nastiness sandwiched between the mustachioed Corinthianism of codified football’s first half-century and the “too-nice”, gentrified post-premiership generation. Although on the surface, Shearer’s protestations about England’s damaging niceness are superficially drawn as comparison to those dastardly foreigners, perhaps he is – subconsciously, at least – engaging in some casual retrogressivism.

What really constitutes ‘too nice’? What constitutes ‘too nasty’? Does such lazy moral absolutism even have a place in football? Shearer is, after all, not exactly uniquely qualified to act as the game’s moral arbiter – as Neil Lennon would doubtless testify. Ultimately, the issue is obfuscatory. England did not fail so miserably in Brazil because they were ‘too nice’, just as the Leeds United of Don Revie – to pick one example – owed their success to many and more complex reasons than their fabled ‘nastiness’. Neither an aspirational model, nor (a)moral exemplar, folk demons such as Revie, Maradona or, more recently, Luis Suarez, instead provide a necessary force in English football’s narrative. Through reveling in their notoriety and widespread opprobrium – a populist unpopularity, if you will – we facilitate the permeation of the facile assertion that we’re too nice, too decent, too honest to win.

Posted by Ron Hamilton

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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