The year British sport got serious
From the subdued transfer market to the meritocracy of Wimbledon, UK sport seems to have opted out of silly season.
Summer is usually a good time for sports writers. Most of the big events happen then, of course – World Cups, Olympics, someone trying to buy Gareth Barry – but with parliament on a break and everyone drinking heavily in the sunshine, it’s also a good time to try out some of your zanier ideas on the news pages. Wild transfer rumours, cod-sociological analyses of sport and the national psyche, pictures of holidaying, ageing sporting dignitaries in tight Speedos, and so on.
Unfortunately, with the UK’s political establishment imploding and the head of MI6, if his wife’s Facebook page is to be believed, filling the Speedo role, sport seems to have grown up a little bit. Football has generally been quiet so far, with most clubs carefully building in difficult financial times: even Sheikh-owned Manchester City’s headline signing has been, erm, Gareth Barry. Sure, Real Madrid have spent nearly £200million by bringing in the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka but they are notable exceptions. ‘The market is crazy… It’s all money, money, money now’, Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez complained, dreaming wistfully of football’s barter economy.
Wimbledon passed by in glorious sunshine, with the titles being won by uniquely talented world-class individuals after being put through their paces by tough opponents. Things were so good that the success-starved British public didn’t even bother complaining about Andy Murray’s aggression or his Scottishness.
In rugby union the Lions toured South Africa (without Alistair Campbell) and played three Test matches of ferocious intensity, magnificent skill and nailbiting excitement. In the build-up to cricket’s Ashes, the 5-0 thrashing in 2007 has tempered the overblown excitement of 2005’s success. With McGrath and Warne retired fans are gearing up for an interesting sporting contest between two well-matched and unproven teams. Even Freddie Flintoff has replaced drunkenly falling off pedalos in the Caribbean for the rather more sedate pastime of missing buses in Belgium.
Fortunately, in these austere times, there are still some heroes out there trying to inject a bit of life into matters. The fantasy world of Formula One has done some admirable work here. The season started off with commentators trying to paint the unexpectantly triumphant Brawn GP team as an updated credit-crunch version of the Seabiscuit narrative, where a serious global financial crisis can be overcome by a plucky sports team with a bit of spirit, determination and an exceptionally wealthy backer who also happens to be the finest race-car designer in the world. ‘A Cinderella Story of Millionaires Supported by Billionaires Supported by Banks,’ as The Daily Mash had it.
Picking up on the 1970s nostalgia of collapsing Labour governments and an imploding economy, F1 also decided to emulate some of the British left by failing to overthrow their aristocratic overlords, splintering off into different sects and then ending up with an uncertain compromise which nobody wants or sees the point of. Bernie Ecclestone, with the feisty refusal to be outdone which is the hallmark of the truly short man, has even been accused of mounting a one-man Nazi revival by announcing at the weekend that Hitler was able ‘to get things done’.
More impressively, alleged car park sex pest and South African rugby coach Peter de Villiers caused outrage by maintaining that the attempt by one of his players to gouge out the eyeballs of a British Lion was all part of the game. ‘Why don’t we all go to the ballet shop and get some tutus’, he conciliatorily offered. Welsh scrum-half Mike Phillips also complained that his opposite number had tried to out-psyche him by complimenting him on his ‘beautiful blue eyes’ while the Boks countered that their players’ tackles had been interfered with.
For trying to maintain with a straight face that acts of gruesome violence and outrageous homoeroticism have no place in rugby union – indeed, that it’s not the main reason why anybody watches – both sides should take considerable pride. But even this hasn’t undone what has been, so far, an excellent summer of competitive elite sport.
Much of the blame for the decline of the silly season goes to Newcastle United, who are possibly exhausted after a sterling effort over the course of the last year. There is something very fitting about Newcastle’s relegation from the Premier League coinciding with the implosion of New Labour. As, famously, Tony Blair’s favourite team, Newcastle became a symbol of everything that was rotten about Britain’s political class: the pathetic attempts to foster a unifying national project through football (with Newcastle as everyone’s ‘favourite second club’); obsessively patronising the working class (‘best fans in the country’, etc) while co-opting and sanitising their traditional culture; spending huge amounts of money while obsessively micro-managing and tinkering. And both managed to replace unpopular figureheads with someone even more odious (Blair-Brown/Shepherd-Ashley).
Indeed, just as the Geordies looked for salvation from Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer – chisel-jawed, hardy souls from more optimistic times – so too Brown turned to Sir Alan Sugar and Glenys Kinnock.
There’s still plenty of time left, with a World Cup and General Election year upcoming, for sport to regain its rightful place as the court jester of British summertime. But until then let’s hope the sportsmen keep doing their job; and politicians remember how to do theirs.
David Bowden is a writer based in London, and a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum.
Duleep Allirajah is away.
(1) See Sex-tape blackmail ensnares Boks boss, Daily Telegraph (Australia), 8 September 2008