I enjoy watching sport for aesthetic reasons. I am almost as perplexed by people who treat football as if it were a kind of war game as I am by those who don’t like sport at all.
If games are not beautiful, why bother with them? Most football enthusiasts (at least, those as old as I am) remember Danny Blanchflower’s famous comment: “The game is about glory. It’s about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.”
The team I happen to follow (because I was born in the same city) does not have this problem at the moment. It wins neither gloriously nor boringly; it rarely wins at all. But flashes of beauty persist.
Winning is important of course; there is no point in playing any game if you don’t take it seriously – by which I mean accept it on its own terms. Someone who is not really interested in playing destroys the game. And by taking it seriously I don’t mean being insanely set on winning.
I was once accused of being overly competitive at croquet – an accusation that mystified me until I realised that the person who made the accusation was not really interested in games.
I was trying to win because if I did not try to win, the whole game was pointless. If I did not win (I can’t actually remember whether I did or not) it was not going to affect my life, or even the rest of the day. It’s quite possible to try hard to win, but not mind if you don’t.
This is harder if you play football in the Premiership or cricket for England. There, defeat can affect your whole life. Sport has become more than a game, and that is difficult to take, because when it comes down to it, when there is not much to choose between teams, winning or losing is often a question of luck.
This seems to me to be obvious, but it is often ignored by commentators, who say that “these things even themselves out”. Do they? I have seen little evidence of it.
In cricket a batsman may be dropped on 5, 6 and 7 and go on to score 200. This is praised as a remarkable innings. If he had been caught on 5, 6 or 7 – as he should have been – he would have been criticised for giving his wicket away cheaply.
There is always one ball that will get you out as a batsman. If this comes along in the first over, that’s bad luck. Logically this could keep happening; so it could be that there are superb batsman who have never made many runs.
In football split-second decisions can change everything. I have functioned briefly as both referee and linesman in very low-level matches, so I know how difficult it is. But the fall-out is huge at top level.
In a game I was watching recently a clearance was blocked by an attacker with his arm. It should have been a free kick to the defending team, but the referee was unsighted and quite a long way away. The game continued, and the player who blocked with his arm raced forward and came down in the penalty area – and was awarded a very dubious penalty.
So what should have been an advantage to the defending team turned out to be a goal against them.
This kind of thing happens all the time, even without the added ingredient of players diving or simulating fouls.
Does this spoil the game? It depends on the stakes. The chief executive of my local football team said recently he would rather die than see the team relegated. Bill Shankly, former manager of Liverpool, said: “Football is not a matter of life and death… it’s much more important than that.”
They were both lying, of course. To be relegated is unlucky, and not at all beautiful. But sport, like life, is not an exact science: the best team doesn’t always win, any more than the best people live longer.
Would we have it any other way? Think hard before you answer.