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What's worse? Blaming one (LeBron) or collective agony (England soccer)?

by | National Columnist

English fans are exasperated after England falls to Italy in the Euro quarterfinals. (AP)  
English fans are exasperated after England falls to Italy in the Euro quarterfinals. (AP)  

LeBron James last week was finally rid of the burly primate at his dorsal fin (going "monkey off his back" has too many inappropriate connotations), but the interesting thing to note is that for nine years, the issue was his back.

Not the backs of his teammates. Not Cleveland's, or Miami's, or Danny Ferry's, or Pat Riley's. His, and his alone. We as a sports nation are funny that way.

Also mean-spirited, stupid and tunnel-visioned. We want it to be one guy's fault. We've designed our view of the world just so it can be one guy's fault. We don't care whether it is or not. That's just what we decided it should be.

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On Sunday, conversely, the English lost their latest big national soccer competition in a penalty shootout, 1-0 to Italy. They lose a lot of these that way, to the point where that nation's sporting fans have made it not the fault of one, but proof of a nationwide psychosis.

As in "We lost again," as in "We can't take penalties," as in "This is what we get," as in "This is what we deserve."

Oh, Ashley Young and Ashley Cole, who missed the penalties that allowed Italy to go through, will catch a bit, but they aren't the focus of England's mood today. It's a collective "We're still not worthy," and individual blame comes well down the list.

Why, they won't even blame the England fan behind the goal who stood and flashed his, ahem, wedding tackle as Alessandro Diamanti kicked the winner. It is a nationwide example of This Is What We Get For Being Us.

While Shaw's hoary old maxim about us being two countries separated by a single language may be so, this is just plain weird. We speak of individuals, as though the teams are an inconvenience we have to get through to get to our real complaints. We've even changed the way we cover events so that we can focus only on individuals as masters of their own fates, a stance so idiotic and provably false that it is amazing we persist with it.

We've gone for faces rather than names. James was a gasbag and an oaf and fraud, until he won. Now he's a hero and a shining example of persistence, the reason why the universe righted itself. We don't want to challenge the notion that we were wrong about him before, so we decide to be wrong about him a second time. Only this time, he's OK with it because he went from goof to genius, rather than the other way around.

Meanwhile, the English have turned the whole matter on its head, or put it on its feet. Yes, this was a national side, with a national history of bollocksing penalty shootouts, but the team-first focus is also true on the club side, where the athletic feats are a collective triumph or failure, and they save the individual analysis for nightclub stalking and WAG trolling.

And on Sunday, the commentary on Sky and BBC and the rest of the lot was the same: "We always do this." They don't bother to go to the alternative, which is "Here's a new set of bastards who let us down. It's us. All of us."

LeBron would have just been "someone important the squad can build around for next time." He would never have been the solitary hero or goat, unless he had done something stupid off the field. Say, like burning down a rental house by shooting fireworks out the bathroom window, as Manchester City/Italy star Mario Balotelli did this winter.

And ultimately, I'm not sure which of these approaches is better, as in, I know the single-entity blame delegation is stupid, but I don't know that an entire nation of breast-beating penitents is any better. It's just different.

But this much is certain, and indisputable. No Miami Heat fan will ever be quite as bad as the English fan who flew the flag to distract Diamanti at the critical moment. To think he was packing enough mobile equipment to catch the eye of an athlete in full concentrative mode is burning with optimism's flame. And for him to say, "Well, I did my part" has more meanings that we are prepared to discuss here.

But I think it's safe to say that whatever else happened this week on either side of the ocean, we know at least one guy who can't "win the big one." And we'll say no more.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast Sports Bay Area (CSNBayArea.com).


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