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It takes a German word to sum up what’s wrong with English football commentators

2012 June 28
by Paul Vallely

It is the sneering rather than the missed penalties which have stayed in my mind after the England football team was knocked out of the Euro 2012 championships. The headlines have all been about racist attacks on the failed penalty-takers, both of whom happened to be black, but it is the weary cynicism of the football commentariat which is more revealing, and more pernicious.

There is something distinctively English about our indulgence in what Thomas Aquinas called delectatio morosa – morose delectation or pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth,” as the book of Proverbs puts it. In the Summa Theologica the Angelic Doctor insists that “the habit of dwelling with enjoyment on evil thoughts” is a sin.

Footballer commentators, however, do not reserve this vice for their pondering on opponents but direct it very much at their own side. Perhaps the worst is the BBC’s Mark Lawrenson who, throughout the tournament, minimised every English achievement and seized with peevish glee on every fault. This went far beyond objective analysis. “Typical England,” was his refrain at he constantly ran the team down.

To judge from Twitter that sentiment was common among many at-home supporters whose physical prowess is limited to the ability to slump further back in their sofa and reach for another beer. Even one of those decrying the racist abuse against penalty-missers Ashley Young and Ashley Cole opined that: “they should never have abused them for being black – they should have abused them for being useless!”. This is the hyperbole of common speech but theologically no person is without use.

Of course this is not a universal reaction. Many people shared the response that, though England didn’t play skilfully enough to secure victory in the quarter-final, it was impossible to fault their leonine effort. “Everyone has given everything they’ve got and that’s all you can ask for,” said the captain, Steven Gerrard. There was defeat but no dishonour. As the prime minister put it: “England showed a lot of heart, and a lot of spirit and a lot of dogged determination”. The players had “made the country proud”.

The Germans have the word Schadenfreude for the taking of pleasure in the misfortune of others. A few years back an academic study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology on the reaction of German football fans and their Dutch and Italian rivals after a similar match.  It, like other academic studies, suggested that Schadenfreude – a more common response by far among men than women – is increased by two things: a sense of inferiority and feelings of envy. People with low self-esteem are more likely to feel Schadenfreude than individuals who have high self-esteem. In brain scans the magnitude of Schadenfreude could even be predicted from the strength of the previous envy response.

Perhaps Mark Lawrenson is in unconscious mourning for his long-departed glory days as a defender for Liverpool FC in its faded prime, and that is why he derives pleasure from sniping at the efforts of his successors. But the medieval theologians have something else pertinent to suggest. Morose delectation, which they thought was more about dark sexual brooding than football, was distinct from actual sexual desire, they insisted. It involves complacent fantasising, without any attempt to suppress such thoughts.

Schadenfreude is a modish word; English has a plainer term for this kind of malicious delight. We call it gloating and it is the mirror image of sympathy, pity or compassion. The BBC would do well to tell its commentators that for a public service broadcaster sympathetic analysis is to be preferred to smirking scorn.

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