Of World Cups and National Pride

Of World Cups and National Pride

People love an underdog. People seem to love getting behind a team that is struggling against the odds, and they love the chance of sharing in that team?s potential triumph against adversity. Some of the world?s greatest sporting moments can be summed up as a triumph of the underdog, and such scenarios naturally lend themselves to positive media coverage and increased public interest.

It?s easy to see how this love of the underdog could have developed within the Australian psyche. Our isolated location on the globe, our history of settlement as a penal colony, as well as the history of our aboriginal people coming to terms with change in their native land are all ingredients that involve some degree of inbuilt struggle, and that might subconsciously prepare us to then support others who face an uphill battle.

In terms of rugby league, Australians adopted a sport that was invented in England and over time endeavoured to make it our own, to the extent that we can be said to be the dominant international team over the past quarter of a century. In New Zealand and in the sport?s native England rugby league fans would be used to supporting a game that could be described as an underdog among football codes in those territories, even since the days of its formation. And that?s not to forget rugby league in France which has faced many barriers in its attempts to establish itself as a sport over the course of its history.

So not only the Australian psyche but rugby league in general is used to struggle and is uniquely tuned to the spirit of the underdog. But if we are to hold out any hopes for the long term future of international competition within our sporting code, we need to help all rugby league playing nations to summon up that underdog spirit - and the media attention and public interest that can go with it - in the lead up to the Rugby League World Cup Finals in 2008, to be held in Australian rugby league?s centenary year.

I recently spent two weeks in Germany and witnessed first hand national pride at its peak as far as many nations and their sporting fans are concerned. The World Cup of Football (or Soccer as it will always be in my mind) seems to capture the hearts and minds like no other sporting event, more so than the Olympics in my opinion because there was usually only one game on at a time, and on television or in the host cities fans from every country could focus on each component part of the competition and follow the progress easily as tension builds. Australians seemed to lap this up, from the massive media coverage through to having fans in their thousands at the games and watching late at night on television.

The underdog factor was clearly at play here too. It was such a struggle for the Australian national side to make it through qualifying for the tournament, that our pure presence in the finals was celebrated. And then any decent level of performance against the higher rated teams was leapt upon as national pride swelled and sports fans lived vicariously through the achievements of a team against the odds. In a nation where soccer had not really been on the radar as domestic game in comparison with other football codes on offer, the World Cup may have provided a pivotal spring board in development and growth for that game domestically.

Imagine then how good a similar story could be for the state of rugby league in one of the developing nations in our Rugby League World Cup? Imagine if the media and the general public in rugby league playing countries in the Pacific, the Atlantic, and around Europe were able to get behind their own underdog stories and stoke their national pride in a similar way? It is an opportunity too big to miss or take for granted, even for the Eastern states of Australia where rugby league is currently dominant.

Our World Cup will not come near the worldwide attention heaped on the recent soccer tournament. But it does need to provide a springboard for the growth and development of the game in all of the competing nations, so that in the context of their struggles for attention and status among other sporting codes rugby league can come out as a winner with a healthy international future.