Saturday 24 June 2017

Let's hear it for the underdog

Iceland's rousing victory against England was a classic case of minnows slaying giants. In sport, as in real life, everyone loves a Hollywood ending, writes Ed Power

Over the moon: Iceland’s midfielder Aron Gunnarsson and team mates celebrate after their 2-1 defeat over England in the last 16 of the Euros. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Over the moon: Iceland’s midfielder Aron Gunnarsson and team mates celebrate after their 2-1 defeat over England in the last 16 of the Euros. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

The entire country seemed to be glued to Monday night's climatic European championship clash of our near neighbours Iceland and England, with most of us cheering the plucky underdogs in blue as they romped to an unlikely victory.

But why was it so thrilling to see a team whose players we could hardly name, upset the reliably dysfunctional England? Many Irish people, after all, claim to support English soccer clubs and, come the autumn, will be down the pub in their fresh-from-the-wash replica jerseys chanting for Wayne Rooney.

Nor has Ireland any particular attachment to Iceland which, if within our north Atlantic neighbourhood, is firmly in the Nordic sphere of influence. How was it that we had our kippers in a twist over a match in which we had so little investment?

The obvious answer is that everyone loves an underdog. And brave strivers don't come any more obscure than Iceland, a nation with the same population as the Cork metropolitan area and a pool of available players estimated at around 40,000.

The same impulse to root for an apparent no-hoper could be seen at last year's Rugby World Cup, when the world willed Japan across the try line against South Africa, or whenever the Dublin football or Kilkenny hurling teams take to the field. We don't care how or why - we just want them to lose for once.

The underdog factor may also explain the warm reception shown to Irish supporters in France this summer. We were never going to win the European championships. Yet our apparent obliviousness to the fact - fans partied as though every night were a victory parade - endeared us to the locals. We were the underdogs who didn't even know it - a guilelessness which added to our charm.

Yet why side with a dark horse in the first place? On paper, England were far superior to Iceland. Surely fans would want the "better" team to advance, thus ensuring the standard of the tournament remained high going into the later stages?

Moreover, as the spiritual home of the against-all-odds moral victory, you might think we in Ireland would be jealous of Iceland. When the annals of Euro 2016 are written, nobody will care about our genuinely impressive defeat of Italy (a proper team, unlike England). It will be all about Iceland giving a black-eye to Hodgson's hapless hoofers.

"Irish teams prefer to be the underdogs," says sports psychologist Canice Kennedy. "This may come from a cultural reluctance to be seen to be 'confident or expecting to win'.

"Modesty is regarded as an admirable trait in Ireland. Hence Padraig Harrington is loved, whereas Conor McGregor is not. McGregor might be admired for his ability but not for his personality. Irish people seem to struggle to understand the difference between confidence and over-confidence and therefore we dislike people who are too confident.

"We prefer our heroes to be modest and we fear that being favourite will lead to over-confidence, poor performance and defeat.

"Our national coaches seem to prefer to focus on the underdog ethos leading to a focus on greater effort and a never-say-die attitude, rather than a confidence-based approach which focuses on out-performing the opposition.

"Even our outstanding county teams, like the Kilkenny hurling team, like to be seen as modest - when it is more likely that they are a very confident group of players regarding their ability, preparation and performance level."

Humans are, it appears, psychologically disposed to back the little guy. Something in our wiring compels us to cheer David against Goliath every time, regardless of our personal stake. There's a reason Hollywood movies are from the view-point of the hopeless hero, rather than the entrenched bigwig. In sport, entertainment, in life, the underdog is king.

The impact of this can be far-reaching. In a US study conducted in the run up to the 2008 American presidential primaries, one group was asked to read speeches by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in which the candidates described themselves as underdogs. Another batch of volunteers was shown news stories about the same politicians where they were described as front-runners.

In each case, the participants encouraged to perceive Obama and Clinton as underdogs found them warmer and more competent than those told the candidates were the frontrunner. Is it stretching the point to suggest Barack Obama's real-life underdog tag helped him win the White House?

Rooting for the outsider has the added effect of making us feel better about ourselves. Who doesn't enjoy basking in reflected glory? In an influential thesis published in the 'American Journal of Personality and Social Psychology' in 1992, fans reported a quantifiable lift in mood when their side won - with the rise of self-esteem proportional to the team's underdog status.

We certainly all experienced a buzz as Iceland sent England tumbling out on Monday. Yet it is doubtful anyone cheering for England would have received anything like the same lift in mood had their side carried the day. Winning is what England was expected to do. Nobody gets a frisson watching the status quo preserved.

An underdog upsetting the odds may furthermore appeal because it feels like a Disney story brought to life, according to a 2012 University of San Diego research paper. In the Hollywood version of Iceland's Euro campaign, the brave islanders would have indeed knocked England out having conceded a goal in the first minute. The game on Monday felt like an uplifting movie unfolding in real time.

There was also the small matter of Iceland playing England. Clapping as our friends across the Irish Sea shoot themselves in the foot is something of a national pastime, and Hodgson and company's humiliation was of a piece with the bad vibes directed at the UK in the wake of the Brexit debacle.

One interesting postscript is that, though the entire world saw Iceland as underdogs, their manager, Lars Lagerback, was confident of beating England. He had done his homework and identified his opponents' weakness (of which they were many it turned out).

"This was a team performance. We are well organised, everybody is doing his job. Everything is in place on the pitch. We deserved our win," he said.

It's a reminder that sweat and tears can achieve only so much. In the end, in sport as in life, determination and self-belief are what get you across the finish line.

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