The British, most notably the English, have a tradition of fair play in sport: it's not important whether you win or lose; it's how you play the game that counts. This attitude goes a long way towards explaining why England's national sides have won relatively few major titles in the sports which they proudly claim to have 'given the world'. If you cannot win a cricket match without sledging, a football game without diving, or a tennis match without abusing the umpire, then occupying a position on the moral high ground more than justifies an empty trophy cabinet.
Magnanimity and Understatement
On those rare occasions when you do win, it is equally important to be magnanimous in victory. A triumphant rugby team forms a guard of honour and applauds their opponents as they leave the field. Footballers will shake hands and swap shirts at the final whistle.
In a similar vein, English radio and TV commentators will perfect the art of understatement when faced with describing the result, whether good or bad. When US golfer Doug Sanders missed a 30-inch putt to win the 1970 Open tournament, all Henry Longhurst could say to the watching millions was:
(Gasp)... Oh dear.
In 1948, England cricket commentator John Arlott described the Australian legend Don Bradman's final Test innings in England in which he was sensationally bowled out for a duck. Hardly pausing for breath, Arlott mused at length over how Bradman, having just been cheered and applauded onto the field by the crowd and opposing team alike, couldn't have seen the ball for the emotion of the occasion.
Even England's greatest sporting triumph, winning the football World Cup in 1966, is remembered for an unusually low-key yet descriptive remark by TV commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme:
Some people are on the pitch. They think it's all over - it is now!
On the Other Hand...
There's one piece of sporting commentary which has entered English folklore as the antithesis of English reserve: a remarkable and oft-repeated outburst from a Norwegian radio commentator describing a football World Cup qualifying match in Oslo on 9 September, 1981. When the final whistle blew, unfancied Norway had just beaten England 2-1. The commentator, Bjørge Lillelien, let rip:
Vi er best i verden! Vi har slått England 2-1 i fotball!
(We're the best in the world! We've beaten England 2-1 at football!)
Det er aldeles uuuutrolig! Vi har slått England, England, kjempers fødeland: Loooord Nelson, Loooord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Henry Cooper, Lady Diana, vi har slått dem alle sammen.
(This is truuuuly incredible! We've beaten England, England the fighters' birthplace: Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Henry Cooper, Lady Diana - we've beaten you all.)
Maggie Thatcher, can you hear me? Maggie Thatcher, jeg har et budskap til deg midt under valgkampen: Vi har slått England ut av verdensmesterskapet i fotball.
(Maggie Thatcher, can you hear me? Maggie Thatcher, I have a message for you in the middle of your campaign. We have kicked England out of the football World Cup.)
Maggie Thatcher, som de sier på ditt språk i boksebarene rundt Madison Square Garden: Your boys took a hell of a beating!
(Maggie Thatcher, as you say in your language in the boxing bars around Madison Square Garden: Your boys took a hell of a beating!)
Lillelien was a popular commentator on both football and winter sports for the Norwegian network NRK. Clearly, Norway's first victory over England since the Viking invasion had been quite an emotional experience for him. Not only did he translate parts of the tirade for any English fans listening in, but he listed a remarkable who's who of English 'fighters', each of whom had been slått as much as the 11 on the pitch. Let's take a look at their pugilistic credentials:
Lord Nelson was certainly a worthy candidate for this list. The naval hero lost his life while defeating Napoleon's fleet at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar.
Lord Beaverbrook on the other hand is less obvious. Not only was he born in Ontario to a Scots-Canadian family, he is best known as the proprietor of the Daily Express and Evening Standard newspapers. He was a prominent politician, though, and held posts in Churchill's war cabinet.
Sir Winston Churchill's credentials were never in doubt. If you were on a beach, a landing ground, a field, a street or a hill, he'd be urging you to fight for it.
Sir Anthony Eden was another who served Prime Minister Churchill during the war as Foreign Secretary, eventually rising to the top job in 1955. Sadly, his fighting days were short-lived after he was forced into an embarrassing withdrawal from a campaign to regain the Suez Canal from Egypt.
Labour Party leader Clement Attlee also served in Churchill's wartime coalition cabinet and succeeded him as prime minister during the post-war period of rebuilding.
Henry Cooper was a heavyweight boxer who won numerous British, European and Commonwealth titles, but lost his only crack at the world title, against Muhammad Ali in 1966. He was, however, well known for advertising aftershave on TV.
Lady Diana, 'The People's Princess', married Prince Charles in July 1981, just a few months before Lillelien's broadcast. Her fighting qualities may not have been apparent at that time. Indeed, despite a somewhat messy divorce, she spent much of her life supporting peaceful causes, notably campaigning against the use of land mines.
Maggie Thatcher, though, was nothing if not a pugilist. Britain's first woman prime minister was nicknamed the 'Iron Lady' by the Russians. And spent much of her long spell in office in conflict with European federalists, Argentinian invaders, trade unions (most notably the miners), and the 'Wets' in her own party. As Lillelien made his selection in 1981, much of this was still to unfold.
The commentary quickly found its way to the English media, which broadcast it with hilarity and bemusement in equal measure. It was swiftly adopted by Scottish football fans as a way to taunt the 'Auld Enemy'. Parodies of the broadcast appear from time to time, the most amusing of which are when the defeated nation is the less powerful one, although it can be difficult to think of eight famous Moldovans.
But even English commentators are not immune to a little impartiality at times:
Boxing commentator Harry Carpenter notably yelled "Get in there, Frank!" as Frank Bruno shook Mike Tyson with a left hook during their 1985 World Heavyweight Title fight.
The very sedate Barry Davies forgot all convention as England scored the decisive goal in the 1988 Olympic Games field hockey final in Seoul, crying: "Where were the Germans? But frankly, who cares?"
Motor racing commentator Murray Walker couldn't quite shake off the professionalism, though, as Damon Hill won the 1996 Formula One Drivers Championship in Japan: "I've got to stop because I've got a lump in my throat..." This was an uncharacteristically restrained comment from a man who, according to Clive James, "in his quieter moments... sounds like his trousers are on fire".
They still have a long way to go to emulate some of the more partisan commentators around the world, none more so than the Argentine Victor Hugo Morales, whose described Diego Maradona's second goal in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final against England thus:
Genio! Genio! Genio! Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta! Goooooool1... Goooooool... Quiero llorar! Dios santo! Viva el fútbol! Golazo!...
(Genius! Genius! Genius! ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta! Goooooooal! Goooooooal! I'm going to cry! Holy God! Long live football! Supergoal!)
Diegooooooo! Maradooooooona! Es para llorar perdonenme... Maradona, en una corrida memorable, en la jugada de todos los tiempos... barrilete cósmico... de qué planeta viniste? Para dejar en el camino tanto inglés...
(Diegooooooo! Maradooooooona! Forgive me for crying... Maradona, with a memorable run, in the greatest play of all time!... Cosmic barrel2... Which planet did you come from, to leave so many English behind?)
Para que el país sea un puño apretado, gritando por Argentina....por Maradona... Argentina 2 - Inglaterra 0...
(So the whole country is a clenched fist, screaming for Argentina, for Maradona... Argentina 2, England 0.)
Diegoooooool, Diegooooool, Diego Armando Maradona... Gracias dios, por el fútbol, por Maradona, por estas lágrimas, por este Argentina 2 - Inglaterra 0...
(Diegoooooooal! Diegoooooooal! Diego Armando Maradona! Thank you, God, for football, for Maradona, for these tears, because it's Argentina 2 [audible sobs] England 0.)
Commentating for the BBC on that occasion was Barry Davies, who had spent the previous five minutes whingeing about Maradona's first goal, one in which he had clearly punched the ball into the net3. His second goal, however, was a piece of brilliance, as the Argentine threaded his way past five English players, then unleashed an unstoppable shot into the far corner. It punctured Davies' balloon of injustice, forcing him into a grudging:
You have to say that's magnificent.
The Norwegian taunts subsequently turned out to be untrue: England still qualified for the 1982 World Cup Final tournament, albeit by the skin of their teeth. Norway, despite their heroics, finished bottom of the qualifying group.
In 1986, Argentina, buoyed by the 2-1 victory over England, went on to lift the World Cup, defeating West Germany 3-2 in the final.
The football results have been largely forgotten, but the broadcasts of Bjørge Lillelien and Victor Hugo Morales will continue to be among the most memorable pieces of sports commentary for years to come.