I feel sorry for people who don’t like sport. I really do. God, what a patronising way to begin: sorry. Let me start again, and if you remain unconvinced, as you doubtless will, I promise I’ll keep an open mind the next time I read something extolling the virtues of some hobby that I completely fail to understand in return.
Now. What is great art about? Giving us insights into the human condition, that’s what: the great artist, poet, musician, manages to make us empathise with others and gain a deeper understanding of our own lives by provoking certain emotions within us. Homer. Shakespeare. Proust. Glory. Sacrifice. Misery. Art provides us with a heightened version of life that illuminates our existence.
So does sport. I’m not talking here about the Sunday afternoon kick around, or French cricket
, or the early morning run, although I’m a great fan of at least two of those three activities, but those great moments which encapsulate everything that makes it worthwhile to be human. Every now and then – not often, but often enough – someone will do something astonishing which makes us marvel at the human capacity for endurance, or panache, or bravery. Examples? Too many to mention, but, recently, David Beckham
's performance against Greece for England, and Goran Ivanisevic
’s stunning wild card victory at Wimbledon
last year both stand out. Or if you still don’t believe me you could go and watch Pete Sampras
or Tiger Woods
doing what they do best and realise that you are truly in the presence of greatness. These two, perhaps alone in the past few years, are clearly worthy members of that select group who can be referred to as masters. I would compare them to Pinter
but I know you’d only become irate. Still, I think of them as geniuses.
I have a personal soft spot, however, for the triumph of the underdog against the odds, the overcoming of adversity to achieve the remarkable. My personal favourite such moment (I’m biased, of course) was Southampton’s breathtaking 6-3 victory against ]Manchester United] a couple of years ago, but arguably the greatest, in this country, at least, was in 1981. If you don’t know about Botham’s Ashes then there may be no hope for you, but it’s a real example of the transcending power of sport: the whole country was entranced by that remarkable series, not just cricket buffs. It wasn’t about line and length or batting technique, it was about one man’s remarkable recovery from an absolute low, when all seemed lost, to rise like the proverbial phoenix from the you-know-whats and (almost) single-handedly give his side victory. The phrase ‘against the odds’ doesn’t do justice to the enormity of this upset – at one point you could have got £500 for a bet of £1 on England winning. Just a bit of fun? Try telling that to the Australian captain, Kim Hughes, who still hasn’t got over it.
Just a bit of fun? No one with any understanding of sport could ever utter such a childish aphorism, because, at its best, it palpably isn’t. Look at the footage on TV of fans of clubs demoted on the last day of the season: go to a match at a big ground and feel the joyous release in those around you when the ball makes the net billow and try not to feel caught up in it. I bet you won’t be able to. Every match is like an unscripted play, and the best can leave you breathless. Great sport is all about moments, moments that transcend ordinary life and lift those who see them to a higher emotional level.
However, three is something tragic about those whose whole life revolves around the team. Sport – especially football – is too often associated with violence. In fact, it’s arguable that the popularity of premier league football amongst working class men between 18 and 24 is partly to do with the absence of war. Sport as death replacement for those who need a tribe and something to hate, who feel redundant because of their pent-up aggression and apparent lack of value to modern society. It’s a sobering thought.
So, yes, if you still hate bats and balls and rackets and hoops then OK. I see where you’re coming from. All I ask is that you try and understand those of us who take final score on Saturday a little too seriously. We don’t say that it’s as important as real life, or art (or at least, not all of us do). We simply find some kind of joy in the greatness of others, a joy in witnessing remarkable moments of grace or courage or passion that achieve a kind of beauty rare in mundane reality, just as you must. A matter of life and death? No, it’s not much more important than that. Of course it’s not. But, please, never tell me it’s only a game.