Saturday 16 May ~
A couple of years ago, LA Dodgers outfielder Manny Ramirez, at that time a the Boston Red Sox player, reacted to a defeat by the Cleveland Indians by saying: “It’s not like the end of the world or something.” Ramirez, now 36 and with 533 home runs behind him, was last week banned by Major League Baseball for 50 games (about one-third of a season) after he failed a test for the banned female fertility drug HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin). So it turns out for Ramirez that, while losing a game is not the end of the world, it’s worth risking your health, your career and your reputation when trying to win, not to mention an estimated $7 million of his annual $25m salary.
Sportsmen react to defeat in a number of ways, but rarely with the sullen stoicism that Ramirez showed after that Cleveland Indians defeat. Yet his attitude would certainly have enraged a sector of the Red Sox support who looked at his salary and thought: “It may not be the end of the world, but you could at least show you care.” Suddenly adopting an enlightened and philosophical perception on the importance of sports results won’t go down well with the faithful who are at least partly paying for that player’s salary. That he’s shown he really does care after all, but only through violating the rules and further enhancing baseball’s battered reputation as the steroid sport, will be of little consolation to anyone who thinks that losing a sporting encounter can be equated to Armageddon.
Football is no more receptive to balanced views of the sport’s real significance. At the end of March, Didier Drogba played for the Ivory Coast right after 22 people were killed when a wall collapsed in Abidjan at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny Stadium just prior to the 5-0 World Cup qualifying defeat of Malawi. Drogba and the other players only found about the deaths after the game, and a week later the Chelsea striker said he was still in shock about the tragedy. And one month after that, he was standing in front of Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo dancing hysterics in front of an audience of millions and swearing into a TV camera, the reason being that he had lost a game of football. It’s the same whenever football and death collide. We come over all solemn and stand in solidarity. At least until the next time the referee makes a mistake that may have cost our team the game.
We shouldn’t directly blame Bill Shankly and The Matter Of Life Or Death Quote for such dramatic lapses in perspective. Rather we should blame all the media commentators who have erroneously taken that quote at face value down the years and used it to justify a view of football that ranks the game alongside global warming, worldwide recession and the spread of HIV in terms of its centric place in our universe. This runs parallel to an absurdly sentimental slant on the game, mainly perpetrated by FIFA evangelists, that football is a force for unification and healing. Nice thought, but it’s a risible falsehood. As George Orwell wrote as long ago as 1945 in his essay The Sporting Spirit: “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.” And that was almost half a century prior to the formation of the fabulous, globally branded, Barclays English Premier League.
Orwell’s essay was a reaction to an ill-willed “friendly” tour of Britain by Moscow Dynamo, and it identified nationalistic pride and sport’s development into a “heavily financed activity” in England and the US as the factor which turned the contesting of games into battles where “the notion of playing the game according to the rules always vanishes”. Although his twinning of patriotic chauvinism with support for a team was arguably exaggerated (but understandable, coming just a few months after the end of the Second World War), the ensuing six decades have served to prove his point that mixing sport and money has done little for Olympian ideals. While some of us can cope with failure by standing back and declaring “It’s only a game”, we know that only the naive still inhabit the domain of the Corinthian spirit.
Besides, who would want to risk saying they don’t really care, when every web, print and prime-time pundit lauds the role of the passionate fan in the permanently pumped up, all-consuming reality world of professional football? Some of us, though, are just relieved that the end is in sight. Not the end of the world, as Ramirez would say, but the end of the season. With no World Cup or European Championship to raise “the question of prestige” (Orwell again), it’s time to shut down, take a breather, and leave it at least two months before we start working out again how our team can cheat or buy its way to victory. Ian Plenderleith