The fundamentals of sporting passion

Why is so much emphasis placed upon the relevance of passion in sport, despite its seemingly ever-present nature?

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Passion is often hailed as the minimum requirement of any team. Its importance rarely understated, pundits, managers and players alike declare the desire, the drive, the hunger that their teams can and will display or, in the case of defeat, that they lacked.

A few of weeks ago, Mexico faced up against the USA in a 2018 World Cup qualifying match in Ohio. On the back of success for a presidential campaign that was less-than-favourable to Mexicans in its policy and language, indeed in a key swing state won by the Republican nominee, the media covering the game spoke of the increased intensity, passion and feistiness to the game both in the build-up and throughout the match. That the game was won through a dramatic 89th-minute header by Mexican captain Rafael Marquez, cueing frenzied celebrations added another layer to the impassioned spectacle.

On the same day, England faced up against their old rivals Scotland in what was in the end less of a close contest, but one billed as equally full of passion and desire, from all quarters. Not only has the traditional rivalry between Scotland and England often been enough in and of itself to push the players involved onto that extra level of intensity, but both managers’ jobs were on the line, more so Strachan’s than Southgate’s.

Finally, earlier in the afternoon, there was another passionately played out match. The LMH 1st team travelled all the way south of the Oxford city centre to play St. Hilda’s away in the JCR Cuppers tournament. There was no large crowd, no managerial threat, no age-old rivalry (unless you count their league game the week before). And yet, Hilda’s last-minute equaliser and LMH’s shoutout-winning penalty sparked loud and emotive celebrations from the respective teams.

If one were to look for other cited causes of intensified passion, they are all over the place. Small, compact stadiums, with fans close to the pitch, such as Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium or Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park, are seen to cause intimidating atmosphere that spurs on home teams. Local rivalries, relegation dogfights, title contenders, minnows against giants in cup ties. Even already-relegated sides are said to be dangerous opponents as they play for pride with nothing to lose.

If passion is so commonplace, then, and from such a wide variety of sources, then why is such emphasis placed upon it, week in week out, in every season? One could argue that it aids certain systems; high intensity pressing, such as that which Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool employ, or backs to the wall defending, such as Burnley have impressively displayed in recent weeks, particularly against Manchester United, might require increased levels of passion. However, passion is not caused by the tactics or system played; as established, it comes from all over the place, and to pin it down to any one cause or need would be overly simplistic.

Rather, perhaps the regularity of passion shows why so much emphasis is placed upon it. Passion is the most essential part of any team. Not in the sense of some kind of pre-match team speech to get everyone riled up and ready to go. When pundits really analyse on the topic of passion, and really emphasise the importance it had on one game or another, it is not because of its presence but its lacking.

When teams lose over and over again, it is a common cliché that the fans would be satisfied if only they showed a little fight, as was the case in Newcastle’s relegation-doomed season in 2015/16. When England fail to perform in major tournaments, as they often do, the go-to problem blamed by fans and punditry is often the lack of intensity or passion. It is the ultimate sin in sport to not give it your all, to fail to, as the cliché goes, leave everything out on the field, or in the ring, or on the track, or on the river.

The simple reason why a dead-rubber Oxford reserve league division four encounter on the last day of the season between two sides neither sitting at the bottom, nor in with a shout of promotion is that everyone wants to be there. It is not some mandatory secondary school game that people have dragged themselves to and spend seeking to avoid exercise and injury. The notion that anyone would voluntarily play sport, and in the case of professionals get paid for it, and not want to throw their heart and soul into it is so incomprehensible to the sporting world that it automatically sets you at a disadvantage to your opponents, and it earns you the wrath of your critics and perhaps your fans.

Sport is unifying, and engaging, and the team bonds that are forged can make or break a season, but passion is the underlying and most essential tool. Passion should not, in theory, offer any advantage, but should merely level out the playing field and make sport the spectacle that it so often is; passion is simply an inherently natural part of sport, it is not as the media hype train would like to argue, a phenomenon that raises its head only at those particularly heated derbies and grudge matches.

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