We need to talk about winning. Because although winning matters, in one way it doesn’t matter at all. And the bit about it not mattering matters a great deal.
We have listened to professional footballers talk glibly about the importance of “winning things” and watched pundits pore over win/loss ratios and trophy tallies for so long that some of us might have started to think that we watch football for the same reasons. But although everyone obviously likes to see their team win something every once in a while, that’s not what keeps us coming back.
The British expatriates who carried football around the world in the latter years of the 19th century, alighting on quaysides in Andalusia, Buenos Aires or São Paulo with a football under their arm and a pair of rudimentary boots in their luggage, didn’t become globe-trotting evangelists for the sport because they were obsessed by winning. The fans who turned out week after week after week after week to watch Rochdale during the 36 years they spent in the English fourth tier without once being promoted or relegated weren’t in it for the glory. And when generations and generations of children have rushed into the street or onto the playing fields to replicate the feats they have seen their heroes perform in the stadium or on television, they have seldom simulated the act of raising a trophy.
Co-commentating for Sky Sports on Chelsea’s 3-1 win at Leicester City on Wednesday night, Gary Neville opined that “no-one remembers” Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United ‘Entertainers’ because they didn’t win anything. It was a throwaway remark, but as a quick glance at the reaction to what he said on Twitter demonstrated, he was wrong. For all their shortcomings, many people do remember the ‘Entertainers’, and fondly, just as people remember the magnificent Hungary team beaten by West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final or the bewitching Holland side that fell to the same opposition at the conclusion of the 1974 tournament.
In 100 years’ time, if we are still playing and watching football, and memories of the great nearly-teams of the past have faded, perhaps we will only remember the winners, for it is their names alone that we will find in the history books (or history eReaders). But to suggest that people only remember the winners is to overlook the fact that for a great number of football fans, the game is a ritual activity, a communal experience that nonetheless leaves each of us with a uniquely personal tapestry of memories, and we are not drawn back to it again and again and again because we thirst for success, but because it is a part of our routine, because we want to be entertained and because, on a very simple level, we love it.
And nor should every team that comes close to glory, only to fall short, be derided. Football teams lose because, as in most sports, one team must always lose (unless, obviously, there’s a draw). As Ronaldo told an exasperated Brazilian Senate inquiry while being assailed with questions about why his country had capitulated to France in the 1998 World Cup final: “We lost because we didn’t win.”
Fans still turn up when their teams lose. People fall in love with teams that never win a single thing. For those at the top of the sport, football is all about winning, but for the rest of us, it’s much more important than that.