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Football Is A Loser’s Game, But That’s Ok

Fans go through much more disappointment than celebration, but it’s the hope of eventual triumph that keeps us going.

Italy v England - UEFA Euro 2020: Final Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

When Gianluigi Donnarumma saved Bukayo Saka’s penalty at Wembley at 10:54pm on Sunday night, England sunk to its knees.

A nation that for the last month had been united in celebration and pure europhia now shared very different emotions. The very worst kind: despair, agony and mourning. Yet as football fans, these feelings aren’t new to us. If anything, they are all too common. As an England and Reading fan you can reel off moments of heartbreak like a shopping list: Fabian de Freitas in the 1995 playoff final, Gareth Southgate at Euro ‘96, that Iceland game, that Huddersfield game. You can fill in the gaps in between.

This isn’t exclusive to this country and this club. Any supporter, whether they follow Wales or Wimbledon, has their own stories of torment. Because, at its heart, football is a loser’s game.

Perhaps this is a pessimistic take, perhaps it is just rational. What draws us into sport, into any form of competition, is the jeopardy and unpredictability it brings because there must be a winner and there must be a loser. Individual battles may end level along the way, but sporting events always end with a champion. That’s the allure.

By definition, becoming a champion should not be easy. Otherwise every country, every club, every player would be a champion. Winning trophies is an exclusive club. 24 teams competed in this summer’s European Championship (with a further 31 previously knocked out in qualifying), but there is only one winner. 24 teams will begin the 2021-22 Championship season next month, but only three will earn that sacred promotion to the Premier League.

It means there are far more losers in football than winners. As supporters, we sit through far more disappointment than we do celebration. That isn’t to say there aren’t moments of elation - beating Germany this summer for example - but they are usually steps along the road to eventual anguish: losing the final.

Unless you actually lift a trophy - which as we’ve established is a rarity - all seasons, tournaments and champions end in unfulfilled aims for the large majority of teams. Of course you can take a huge amount of pride in defeat, as should be the case with England this summer, but the pain is never eliminated.

Italy v England - UEFA Euro 2020: Final Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

It begs the question: why on earth do we continue to watch our club and our country when despair almost always lies at the end? In no other walk of life do you carry on doing something even though you know you will get hurt. You do not carry on touching a hot pan after it has burned you once.

The answer lies in one little word: hope. This strange yet really rather simple phenomenon that overrides anything else in your subconscious telling you that things will end badly. At the start of any competition, everyone - numerically at least - is on a level playing field. No wins, no defeats. It’s a blank canvas. Anything can happen, and because there is that chance, there is that hope.

It’s what Baddiel and Skinner’s ‘Three Lions’ encapsulates so well. It’s not a song of arrogance or entitlement. It’s about the relentless belief, in the face of past failures, that gives us something to live for. Thirty years of hurt. Never stopped me dreaming.

The greatest dream of all is imagining what that feeling of being a champion must be like. England winning a major tournament. Reading winning a playoff final. Granted, we have won two Championship titles - one in record-breaking style - but after four Wembley defeats there is not a Royals fan out there who doesn’t want to know what winning that game feels like.

Once we come to terms with the fact that football is a loser’s game, it becomes far easier to love. That might sound strange, but if we know the most likely outcome of a competition is defeat, we can appreciate the wins along the way even more. If you will divulge me in a Chris Gunter story for a second, when Wales were 3-0 up against Russia at Euro 2016, the right-back turned to his manager Chris Coleman and said “enjoy this gaffer, moments like this don’t come around very often”.

That is what England have taught us this summer: to just enjoy football again. It can be easy to get caught up in the social media furore or think long term, but at risk of sounding like a knock-off life coach, just live in the moment. Allow yourself to take it all in.

As the new club campaign appears on the horizon, with its twists and turns aplenty, it’s a lesson to take into the future: dream big, let games play out and savour the good times.