Wimbledon is a theatre of cruelty; the European Championships, the crucible of chauvinism

One of the blessings of my life is the way in which the great sporting calendar disperses the monotony of undifferentiated time. In the same way in which the changing of the seasons saves us from a sense of stagnancy and changelessness, the procession of sporting gala events from the Snooker World Championships, to the US Open of golf, to the European Championships in football, to Wimbledon to the Olympics give local colour to lives that tend to stay broadly the same from one year to the next. We live in the same cities, work the same jobs, live in the same houses, make our lives with the same people; but sport embodies the variety principle, breaking in on the things that stubbornly resist change.

And so for the last couple of weeks I’ve been living and dying with that great artist of gesticulation, Fatih Terim; laughing familiarly at the wry wit of Martin Lawrenson; and singing along inanely to that song they place when someone scores. Even before the sporting Goddess of Plenty finishes feeding us the European Championships, she has already started urging us on to glorious super-satiety by offering us a fortnight of Wimbledon. This time it’s the charm of McEnroe’s yankee candour, the languid endlessness of the days and Nadal’s flashing Conan-the-barbarian arms.

This opening two paragraph paean is my attempt to atone for what I’m about to say. Whilst satisfying our gluttonous appetites for sport, Wimbledon and the European Championships have been busy showing us a very ugly picture of what we are like. They stand as twin testaments to our cruelty and our chauvinism. Embedded in, and inseparable from, these two great sporting events – seemingly so innocuous and children-friendly – are cruelty and chauvinism.

Wimbledon embodies the characteristic cruelty of the British which so often goes unseen, visible as it is only in the folds of life. The place that it shows itself nakedly, without disguise, is the drop-shot. By reflecting on the drop-shot – where cruelty imprudently gives itself away – you can see the motives of players and spectators which are submerged so effectively in the rest of the game.

The drop-shot is not a percentage shot. Even on the relatively low-bouncing grass of Wimbledon against a tired hobbledyhorse opponent, it is not a percentage shot. Andy Murray doesn’t persist in using the shot – Goran Ivanisevic didn’t insist on repeatedly utilising the shot – because he mistakenly believes that it will be a more efficacious shot than a stinging cross-court forehand or a deep backhand down the line. It doesn’t survive in tennis as a tool to hammer out victory; it isn’t a means to the prosaic end of accumulating points.

A tennis-player plays a drop-shot in an attempt to humiliate his (sic) opponent. By successfully playing a drop-shot you over-man your opponent, you castrate them, you mortify their virility. You do it to because you are cruel and because that cruelty overflows into the desire to inflict an injury on your opponent. There is something gratuitous in the drop-shot, somehow it has a superabundance of that which you need to claim the point – the disguise, the caressing movement of the forearm that seems to declare the rest of the body superfluous, the panicked realisation of the opponent, the frenetic stooped rush to the net, the plunged head and painfully helplessly outstretched racket, the twice-bouncing ball and the graceless exit from the point in shameful redundancy. It is almost as if one deliberately places oneself under a handicap by making use of such an unserviceable shot; there is a bravado of self-sabotage.

The key here, though, is that the shot isn’t played out of a will-to-win, or even a simple desire to demonstrate skill; drop-shots are played in a spirit of malice – we play them because we want to bring the other player low. The whole exchange enacts our power over them. We draw them with forced haste to the net and force them to bow their heads to us and slink away to the back of the court for the next point. And at Wimbledon it is ritualised still more by the presence of the crowd. It is a ritual of public humiliation that takes place in a theatre of cruelty. You can only see it clearly with the drop-shot, but it suffuses whole sport. Tennis players play not to win as such, but to inflict humiliating defeats on their opponents. They do it because of the secret – often unconscious – pleasure that they feel in cruelty. All those genteel supporters in Wimbledon’s Centre Court: they go because they want to participate vicariously in this near-Nietzschean battle for mastery.

The European Championships – and football more generally – expose far more transparently our chauvinism. We are incorrigibly parochial: we prefer what is close and familiar and well-known. Everything else we are suspicious of. Watching Euro 2008 has brought this into such clear focus because of England’s failure to qualify. Instead of our whole response to the tournament being consumed by monomaniac immersion in the question of England’s progress or elimination, we have been forced to take up the stance of detached observers watching the European Championships as a sort of showcase of footballing talent, an assemblage of the most talented players in the continent. In thinking about this, it occurred to me just how perverse the conventional attitudes to football are. Loyalty, the need to tenaciously belong to a group, overwhelms everything else of value that we could find in the sport. Instead of demanding to see the most attractive, exciting football, all we want is to win. The most important thing is that our own group overmasters that of the other team – by (disreputable) hook or by (deadly dull) crook.

This made me think of Nabokov (a strange mental association, I know). Football fans must have appalled Nabokov, the purist, the aesthete. For him there could be no higher loyalty than to beauty. To prefer the efficacious over the beautiful, to cheer mediocrity because it is our mediocrity, would have been unthinkable to him. He was a connoisseur of art, a disinterested critic who was unwilling to have the fiat of his taste contradicted by the parochial concerns of morality or fidelity or any other extraneous concern. The Nabokovian football enthusiast, who doesn’t care which team wins only how good the game is, strikes me as a completely plausible figure. But you never meet them; they don’t exist. The standard question to ask of some new acquaintance if the conversation turns to football is: “Who do you support?” Either you support a team or you don’t know anything about football. The Nabokovian football supporter would baffle the conceptual apparatus of the normal football fan. Presumably they would be written off as a weirdo, an eccentric, some sort of foreign element (Nabokov, rather unhelpfully, was all three).

Perhaps you don’t mind what I’m calling chauvinism; perhaps you think that the matches have more vitality because everyone approaches them as partisans, attached passionately and indissolubly to their teams. Everything becomes personal that way. But just look at what it does to the game. It prevents the development of any rules of good conduct. It doesn’t just mean that we’re willing to trade beauty for efficacy; it means that we don’t care what squalid behaviour it takes to extort a victory. It’s a bit like the Hobbesian model of international relations: no one acknowledges any higher authority than the success of their own group, so there is no law to trump the law of necessity. The law of morality is localised; these inter-group matches stand outside of it. So everything is permitted. Just listen to the chauvinistic fans screaming their approval of the “gamesmanship” of their own team and howling in protest at the “cheating” of the other team. You can pull a Ballack (the time-wasting pseudo-injury); you can do a Rivaldo (the get-someone-sent-off pseudo-injury). You can cheat in any way at all so long as you are wily enough to get away with it. It is failure that is culpable, not cheating. There’s something deeply dissatisfying about this, but it is made still worse by the irony that it always seems to involve a pathetic unmanly theatricality and an appeal to the rod of the nanny-referee in an arena of testosterone and gladitorialism where it is plainly inappropriate. The incongruity of it should be sufficient for derision to kill it off.

Many people will respond to this, I’m sure, by saying that I am writing about football as if it were a game when in actual fact it is something far more serious than that. Maybe so. This might just be my dilettante, amateur attitude to something that consumes people’s whole lives, but it seems to me that if people are going to give their whole lives to following football that they might at least want to watch attractive games and ones which are honourably free of disfigurement by effete cheating.

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