My obsession with the sporting underdog

My obsession with the sporting underdog

Morning all. Slowly but surely, things are starting to move again in the world of sport. In the UK, the government announced that professional sport could return, behind closed doors, from June 1st. Snooker is wasting no time, with the Championship League getting underway this morning in Milton Keynes. The Premier League will be back on June 17th, with Arsenal facing an unappetizing trip to Manchester City. Across the pond, the UFC returned from its hiatus with a surprise points victory for Brazilian welterweight Gilbert Burns over former world champion Tyron Woodley on Saturday, while the PGA tour will also return on June 11th. Whisper it, but sport is coming back.

While this is of course good news, the fact remains that there has been precious little live action for me to get stuck into over the past week. With that in mind, I have been thinking about a curious trait that seems to follow my sporting history since childhood: the obsession with the underdog.

Sport, it is said, is about the winners. The superstar individuals – those that appear both on the back and front pages of newspapers – are lauded not only for their brilliance in their chosen athletic discipline, but also for inspiring children around the world. Playing around in the back garden, everyone dreams of emulating their idols, who are invariably those who stand out from the crowd. An elite striker. A Grand Slam winner. A World Champion. No-one fantasizes about becoming a solid right-back – not even Gary Neville.

While I understand this thesis, my approach has always differed. For as long as I can remember, my weekends have been governed by my sporting obsession. But my favourite athletes are always members of the supporting cast, the unsung heroes. They are rarely – if ever – the superstars.

Take football, for example. As a kid growing up in the late nineties/early 2000s, it was a pretty great time to be a Gooner. But my heroes from that time were not the figures you might expect. In the early Wenger years, when Tony Adams and Ian Wright were the dominant forces, I had Nigel Winterburn on the back of my shirt. A great player, no doubt, but by no means the star of the team.

During the Invincibles era, it was Robert Pires and Ashley Cole. I respected Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira immensely and valued their contributions to the team, but they weren’t the ones I hoped would make the difference in matches (although, of course, they invariably did). In more recent years I have followed guys like Tomas Rosicky, Bacary Sagna and Santi Cazorla, not Cesc Fabregas, Robin Van Persie or Alexis Sanchez. Players who rarely made the headlines, except in my dreams.

This curious tendency overlaps into other sports. In tennis, I have backed (in roughly chronological order) Tim Henman, Fernando Gonzalez and Kei Nishikori. All three were ranked inside the top 10 for decent chunks of their career, and all challenged in the latter stages of the biggest tournaments. Playing in the shadow of all-time greats like Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, more conventional superstars for me to follow, none of my boys ever won a Grand Slam or reached number 1. And yet that did nothing to dissuade me from lending them my full, unwavering support until their retirement (in Nishikori’s case, hope springs eternal).

In Formula 1, when Michael Schumacher was winning title after title, I was praying for David Coulthard to usurp him. A great driver with an even greater jaw, Coulthard was never quite good enough to win the championship; he finished second once and third four times. In snooker, I will be rooting for Ding Junhui to win the World Championship next month, not world number 1 Judd Trump or the “People’s Champion” Ronnie O’Sullivan. I could go on.

So what could explain this bizarre obsession with the also-rans? I think there are a couple of things. Firstly, one of the main factors that draws me towards sport is its unpredictability. Just like life, anything can happen during a football match or Formula 1 race because they are real and unscripted. That is why they provide such unrivalled levels of drama. And that is also why it becomes boring to me when one athlete or team wins all the time. Just as I wouldn’t watch a film if I knew the ending in advance, nor am I inspired to see Novak Djokovic destroy the world number 120 in the first round of Wimbledon. The sporting superstars, for all their greatness and admirable dominance, make their respective fields too predictable, and thus less entertaining. I tend to go for other candidates who have an outside chance of winning because I want to be reminded of sport’s unique ability to shock. I want to be entertained.

Secondly, and I think more importantly in my particular case, I am a sporting purist who believes that the manner of victory is equally as important as the victory itself. To use Djokovic as an example again, I admire him immensely but I have never enjoyed his style of play; to me, he is a ruthlessly efficient winning machine who wears down his opponents through sheer force of will. Players like Henman and Gonzalez, on the other hand, played attractive, attacking games that would entertain me even in defeat. The romantic in me wants those athletes who bring beauty to their sports to be rewarded with victory. Sadly, athletes that place style over substance often lack the required mental fortitude to be the best, hence my tendency to end up on the losing side.

So there you go. Perhaps there is a deeper, darker psychological reason why I support the losers. A deliberate act of self-sabotage? Or maybe I just want to be different. I don’t know. But, for what its worth, I plan to continue supporting these valiant failures for the foreseeable future.

Right, that’s about all I have to say about that for now. Back on Wednesday with some mid-week thoughts. Until then.

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