Asking me about football is like consulting Stevie Wonder on the brush-strokes of a Rembrandt painting or Dieter Bohlen on the tone quality of Fidelio. You will get an opinion but it won't carry much authority.
This isn't just because I'm allergic to sports, but also because I come from England. Remember England? The chaotic over-priced country that invented football but which is only just discovering that it cannot really play the game?
Even so, Berliners have been coming up to me during the present European Championships and asking me, with a worried look, how do I feel? Naively, I thought at first that this was due to my unusual pallor and gave them a polite, censored resume of my medical condition. Slowly it dawned on me that I was being exposed to a rare and delicate example of Berliner irony. This is something I would normally welcome, but after a while the joke wears thin.
“So, Mr Boyes, another rest day in the English camp?” asks the guy at my lottery kiosk. Or my local baker: “Cricket is a nice game too, right?”
Psychotherapists probably diagnose our present problem as play-exclusion syndrome, familiar for years to countries like Ireland and Hungary. At first, you blame a conspiracy for your failure to qualify. Then you blame your coach. Then you blame the Germans. After a period of mourning you accept that England is simply devoid of football talent – but pretend that everything will be all right by next year. All these processes are irrational.
The next stage, having recognised that you are doomed to watch this tournament on television, is to find a national team that can serve as your proxy. English men have only one criterion: who can beat the Germans? English women tend to cheer on teams with good-looking players (another deficit on the English side), and this year seems to have settled on Portugal as the team they would most like to sleep with. The men favoured first Poland and now Holland. The next stage – we haven't quite reached it yet – is to acknowledge that Germany will win and announce to the world that it is all down to the Chelsea-training of Michael Ballack.
I don't think I will ever make quite such an abysmal surrender. Instead I am just enjoying the free time. For example, going to an empty cinema during a German match to watch “Sex and the City,” knowing that I won't be embarrassed by the presence of other men. Or walking my dog down the middle of the road, devoid of traffic, listening to birdsong. Of course, if there is any chance of the Germans scoring during the walk (and letting out a seismic “Tor!!!!!!!”) I muffle my ears with the sweet embrace of my iPod.
At the Queen Birthday Party in Berlin last week, the new British Ambassador thoughtfully removed the wide-screen television from under the garden tent. We had one in 2006, this time it would have been tasteless, mere self-mockery So, instead I listened to an anglophile professor (clearly identifiable by the way he said “Bless you!” when I sneezed) explain to me that the British had mastered the “Science of Losing.”
First we invented games – football, rugby, cricket, croquet, golf – and made up the rules so that only we could win. Impatient for competition we invited foreigners to take part – and lost our dominance. To cope we developed the concept of the “good loser” and “fair play.” It was, he said, a metaphor for post-imperial decline. Exclusion from the Euro 2008 was actually England deliberately cultivating its football incompetence in order to marginalise itself in Europe.
Naturally I almost choked on my strawberries and cream and assumed that the prof was simply raising the Euro mockery of the English to a new sophisticated level. But then I studied his brogue shoes from Church's, his striped tie, the snuff box and concluded: the man is serious – albeit wholly deranged. The fact is the English are terrible losers at sports. That is why we have such crude and ugly fans. We are good at losing only: A) Empires. We lost most of our colonies without bloodshed and taught them first how to play cricket and drink tea; B) Elections. Some of the best political speeches ever made were delivered by people who lost an election; and C) Our virginity. Sadly, perhaps, English girls have gained a reputation for this on the Continent.
But as for losing sports encounters, naja. Perhaps we should learn from the Germans. Look at how you approached the World Cup two years ago. First, you spent months telling the world it was going to be a dismal failure, that the stadiums were useless and the team even worse. But privately the Germans were thinking – as they are thinking now – we are winners, better than those slippery foreigners. Some may regard this as hypocrisy but it is in fact an almost oriental aversion to demonstrating arrogance. If Germany loses, then it will have been widely predicted. And if Germany wins, well that's just fine.
Germany in other words has taken over the stewardship of the (always rather dubious) concept of fair play from the British. We never really believed in it. The English, like the Germans, always wanted just to win, hated to lose. Fair play was, for the English, a mask that we put on so as not to lose face.
Now we are less concerned about what others think of us, are more naked in our ambition to succeed. Sadly, without the talent to match. The Germans meanwhile have become as restrained as we used to be; an image conscious society. I am happy for you – no, really I am. And I don't really mind if Germany wins. When the moment comes I will be in an air-conditioned cinema, eating popcorn.
Viel Glück, Deutschland! (You will need it)