Underdogged

The only people in the world predicting anything but a quick Australian exit from the World Cup are its players. Socceroos talisman Tim Cahill’s vision is inspiring: "Why can't we be the best Australian team ever regardless of age, or regardless of what people say about lack of ability or experience?"

The answer to Tim’s question, from the rest of the world, is that Australia, however game, is just not good enough.

A New York Timesgraph, featuring what looked like a soggy pile of jello, described us as the tournament’s most unlucky competitor, with a "luck factor" of 0 per cent. Blessed Mexico’s rating was 99 per cent. We had too much jello on the wrong side of the draw.

"Among the thousands of draws that Australia could have received, its actual first-round grouping is the worst one possible," the Times sympathised.

"In concrete terms, Australia will need to beat out two of the world’s 15 highest-ranked teams in order to advance. Nigeria, by comparison, needs merely to beat out either the 25th-ranked team (Bosnia and Herzegovina) or the 37th-ranked one (Iran)."

The Times believes "Australia will need something close to a miracle to do so well".

We were the lowest-ranked team to qualify. Not long ago we were getting flogged 6-0 by the sort of heavyweights one plays as a matter of course in the finals.

Hell, even a glamorous UK afternoon TV presenter-cum maths expert tipped trouble for the Aussies. Analysing goal averages, goal scorers, win rates, climate, geography and previous results, ‘Countdown’s’ Rachel Riley predicted Chile would win the entire shebang. That just leaves Spain and the Netherlands for us to beat. They played off for the last title.

Sportsbet rates Australia a $9.00 chance to beat Chile. To qualify for the next round, the Socceroos are $13.00, Spain is $1.12; Netherlands $1.57; Chile $1.91. They are encouraging us to bet with the slogan "Keep The Faith".

Bloomberg Sports’ boffins rate the title chances of group B nations thus: Spain, 9.1%; Netherlands, 3.9%; Chile, 1.2%; Australia, 0%.

But all of this negative sentiment gives Socceroos fans a major luxury going into the World Cup: they can barrack for an underdog.

The underdog has been defined as "anyone who is at a perceived disadvantage, who is perceived by others to be weak, who has a history of failure or challenges, or who people believe is likely to fail."

"We like to back the team that has its back against the wall, not because we like backing losers, but because we like to see a team beat the odds," wrote Nathan Helfick in Psychology Today.

Underdogs "will concentrate on every minute detail in order to perform optimally," writes sports scientist and soccer player Duncan Foster. "The superior team is always expected to win comfortably, but a hint of complacency on their part can be a huge downfall, as they could be outworked by the underdog."

Psychologists investigating this phenomenon have found that we gravitate to underdogs because of "character strengths" their stories provide. Researchers propose that those who are viewed as disadvantaged arouse an inherent sense of fairness and justice that lurks within human beings.

Underdogs must persevere against the odds, expending more effort than the favourite. Their effort inspires us to be braver and battle our own weaknesses. As a result, we empathise with the disadvantaged, and Hollywood's top 100 movies are largely populated by the journeys of underdogs who persevere.

In a study of 100 students at Bowling Green State University in 1991, 81 per cent chose the underdog over the "highly favoured" opponent in a simple hypothetical contest. Behavioural economists believe this is because of the "availability heuristic". That basically means that an underdog's triumphs stick in the mind more readily than a favourite’s expected victory.

"Our dislike for inequity in sports could explain why we appreciate teams that appear to try harder on the court. Natural talent is unfair: You either have it or you don't. But a game that's decided on effort alone gives everyone an equal shot," wrote slate.com’s Dan Engber.

He went so far as to suggest that Americans love an underdog because they live in an "unequal society" and the outsider "offers something precious - the belief that anyone can overcome his misfortune."

"The average American roots for the underdog in sports because he's an underdog in life."

New Yorker writer and author Malcolm Gladwell took on perceived disadvantage head-on in his book David and Goliath.

He says for the weak, "the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty."

He believes limitations beget strengths, citing the example of a dyslexic construction worker who became a great trial lawyer because of an ability to listen.

But Engber concludes that we only care about the less fortunate in less important matters.

Quoting the work of Scott Allison, a professor at the University of Richmond, Engber says our connection to a lesser team "is a mile wide and an inch deep," and perhaps only applies in the "trivial world" of team sports.

"With nothing much at stake, we're free to indulge an idle preference for an upset."

Engber is obviously not that passionate a fan. Other studies prove that the hormone rates and self-esteem of true fans – even how they rate their chances with the opposite sex – fluctuate with the performance of their team. It can mean that much to us.

Underdogs lose their status if they are expected to lose but have a lot of resources. Our well-funded Socceroos may lack a raft of world-class superstars, but they come from a largely peaceful, affluent nation.

Teams with better draws, such as Honduras or Nigeria, better fit many of the criteria of the classic underdog.

But when we line up against the might of Chile, Holland and Spain, I suspect most Australians will adopt the underdog posture. Only 3 per cent of us believe we will get out of the group stage, or record a win, at the World Cup.

We will be hoping that our opponents are complacent, and burdened by the weight of expectation, and we catch them off guard.

To that end, back to Tim Cahill, on low expectations of the Socceroos: "For us it's perfect."

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