It is the sneering rather than the
missed penalties that stayed in my mind after the England football
team was knocked out of the Euro 2012 championships on Sunday. The
headlines have all been about racist attacks on the failed
penalty-takers, both of whom happen 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.
Football pundits, 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,
as he constantly ran the team down.
To judge from Twitter, this sentiment
was common among many at-home supporters whose physical prowess was
limited to the ability to slump further back in their sofas and
reach for another beer.Even one of those decrying the racist abuse
against the penalty-missers Ashley Young and Ashley Cole opined:
"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, although England
did not 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 ago, an academic study was published in the
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology about the
reaction of German football fans and their Dutch and Italian rivals
after a similar match. In line with other academic studies, it
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 response of envy.
Perhaps Mr 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.
Paul Vallely is associate editor
of The Independent.