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International readers will not forgive the boast but, adjusting for population, Britain might be the most successful sporting nation of the past 10 years. The English rugby team won a World Cup and reached another final. The cricketers have thrice claimed the Ashes – an Australian monopoly in the 1990s – and will probably add a fourth this summer. The UK finished fourth in the Beijing Olympics medals table and third in London, edged out only by much more populous countries.
In Andy Murray, the Wimbledon champion, it has the second-ranked men’s tennis player (the highest American is 20th). It has similarly decorated golfers, Formula One drivers and cyclists, including Chris Froome, who won this summer’s Tour de France. In almost every major internationally competitive sport – with one giant, aggravating exception, to which we will return – these islands are formidable. Our prior reputation as amiable also-rans now looks as redundant as our status as the workshop of the world.
Yet the British themselves struggle to understand how all this has happened. We tend to credit a turn in fortune, or an inexplicable glut of God-given talent, or some other miracle. The earthly reality is that countries do well when they put the necessary systems in place. British sport is now much more professional – and backed by better infrastructure – than it ever was before.
That world-beating rugby team was coached by Sir Clive Woodward, who was shaped by his playing career in Australia, where standards of scouting, tactics and physical conditioning were space-age compared with what was known back home. It is easy to forget the derision his interest in sports science attracted from cynical Englishmen until he won that World Cup in 2003.
In cricket there was even more dramatic modernisation. After the dismal 1990s, the English Cricket Board introduced central contracts. These ensured that top players owed their primary allegiance to the national team and played only sparingly for their county sides. The contentious decision caused county cricket to atrophy but England to thrive, as the best players avoided physical burnout and absorbed the lengthy, sophisticated kind of game required at international level.
There are similar stories across other sports. British cycling owes its global eminence to Sir Dave Brailsford, the demanding and innovative performance director, and the Manchester velodrome, the Olympic-standard facility where burgeoning talents are honed. In athletics, a once-egalitarian funding system became ruthlessly targeted at performers who showed the potential to reach Olympic finals. Much of the funding comes from the National Lottery, which began in 1994.
Even where British sport has failed to get its act together, it has profited from professional rigour abroad. Murray’s career is another story of intense coaching in superb facilities, but it largely took place in Spain. At 15 he decided that the infrastructure offered by the Lawn Tennis Association could not make a champion of him, so he moved to an elite hothouse in Barcelona.
And then there is football. For many, Britain’s sporting renaissance will never feel real until it includes The One True Sport. England has the most watched league in the world, but largely because it teems with foreign stars. The national team has reached one final of a major tournament in its history, and that was almost half a century ago. It takes a special kind of patriot to think England will bring home next summer’s World Cup.
Football is a game of skill, and skill is learnt. In his book Bounce, the former table-tennis player Matthew Syed demolishes the “myth of talent”. Brilliance that we describe as a gift, he says, is actually the product of endless, repetitive practice overseen by coaches who know what they are doing. There is nothing mystical about it. The British have applied this to almost every sport bar the one they truly love. In 2008, there were 2,769 football coaches licensed by Uefa – the European governing body – in England. The numbers for Germany, Italy and Spain were 34,970, 29,240 and 23,995.
There are hints of change. St George’s Park is the Football Association’s gleaming answer to Clairefontaine, the youth academy that produced a shimmering generation of French players. More people accept that success is not an accident. But other sports learnt this long ago, and see the fruits now. The country’s biggest, richest game is the slowest to the revolution.