The meaning of sporting baubles

“Is this important?” is a question I am sometimes asked as I sit down to watch a game of football. It fills me with dread, not simply because it could be interpreted as a coded challenge to my commandeering of the television. It is actually a deeply philosophical question, which induces a kind of agony as I flounder in search of a response. Sometimes the question will come with a qualification. “I meant, is this for something?”, or “Is there something being handed out at the end of this?”. There is a need to know whether this game I want to watch isn’t just part of the same endless football cycle. The answer to whether a match could ever be important is obviously no, however much people approvingly quote Bill Shankly in these matters. The answer to the supposedly more benign version of the question is also no, and sometimes no less of a squirm-inducing experience.

While I expect these choices to be scrutinised, I was even more alarmed by a recent comment by a longstanding follower of the game: “I don’t keep it up with it as much as I used to. It doesn’t feel like it means anything anymore.” Again, I would never have quibbled with the technical validity of claims that football doesn’t mean anything. But it must surely be invested with something. What draws in the punter? What makes it meaningful for them? There is the tribal identity, of course, but there are noble things as well. Witnessing technical ability, skill and athleticism combined with the human factor that makes performing at a high level more than a question of talent and practice. The question I also return to, however, is the importance of the prize, and just as crucially, its authenticity. Does the prize merit our attention?

They say the chief attraction of sport for spectators and viewers is that it provides unscripted drama. When football was rebranded by Sky in the early 1990s, with the aid of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, outcomes may not have been absolutely determined but the cast of central characters was permanently restricted with only occasional walk on parts for interlopers.  Yet the public don’t seem particularly put out by this. And even if, in the case of England, the market for football on television is peaking, the Premier League is now an export market, and there are new territories to conquer across all parts of the globe.

The same development has happened with Europe’s premier football competition, the Champions League, the final of which is on this weekend. Teams from Romania and Serbia don’t win this tournament anymore. This writer was hostile to extending entry into the Champions League to runners-up of top European leagues, later expanded to third and fourth placed teams. Yet not many people shared that consternation, I noticed, even when the tournament was being won by teams who were thirty points adrift in their national championship the previous year. Eventually I realised I had come to resemble the Japanese soldiers who didn’t surrender when the Second World War ended, like Hiroo Onoda, who held out on the island of Lubang in the Philippines until 1974. Now I’m actually used to being a holdout. I come from a holdout village, in fact, some of whose inhabitants were reluctant to acknowledge Daylight Savings Time for many decades. I still think the name of the competition should be changed, but this was a battle even I had to concede was futile. Rank and file football supporters simply aren’t bothered by this, and like having more regular matchups between the traditional powers, even if it means permanently entrenching their power. And let’s be honest, that team that finished a distant fourth in the Premier League did provide a memorable moment in winning the Big Cup.

So it’s clear that changing a competition doesn’t automatically lead a squandering of public interest. In fact, many competition formats have been continuously tinkered with over time, or “revamped”, as a television executive might nowadays put it. Sometimes for the better. But are the way games are actually played under threat? Steady advances in equipment, physical preparation and tactical sophistication there may have been, but the world’s popular sports haven’t fundamentally changed since they were codified, mostly in the late 19th century. There are changes to some sports either afoot or bubbling, however. Twenty20 cricket has gone well beyond being a niche short form of the game. No advantage scoring in tennis has its adherents, in certain boardrooms I’m sure. And people are questioning the length of time a round of golf takes. Apparently this is because we simply don’t have the time to take a proper interest in sports and pastimes like we used to. Wariness is the watchword with all these “innovations”, while saluting those sports that almost never change, and whose main events would be recognisable to people who watched them many years ago. The final of the World Snooker Championship is still played over 35 frames at the Crucible Theatre, the Derby is the same 12 furlongs race in Epsom that it’s been since almost the first running in the 1780s, the Tour de France still witnesses drama on the great mountain passes of the Alps and the Pyrenees. The beauty of the prize is inseparable from their sense of continuity. 

To suggest an answer, trophies and medals have a limited importance, because they have almost no meaning. As the defense attorney Freddy Riedenschneider, played by Tony Shalhoub in the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There instructed the court, one shouldn’t look at the facts, but at the meaning behind the facts. When I am hit with the question “Is this important?”, obviously I am interested in who wins, but the answer I really want to give is that is I am hoping for a moment or, even better, a whole absorbing narrative. Something transcendent that gives this contest worthwhile human interest. That’s where the meaning ultimately lies.

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