Here is an entry from my own personal thesaurus. Sport: game, play, pretend, make-believe, something that doesn’t matter; josh, wind-up (have s. with); flaunt, affect, show off.
I don’t follow sport. I don’t have to. It follows me, everywhere I go, like the loud and embarrassing fellow wedding guest you happened to have been at school with, or one of those big fat stupid autumn mosquitoes that just won’t take no for an answer. That’s how I know that first France, then Portugal beat England in the European football Championship, and that France were knocked out by Greece, who beat Portugal in the final. I didn’t want to know any of this, but I had no choice. Preserving my ignorance would have meant abstaining not only from all media consumption for the duration of the contest, but all social contact as well.
Still, given that the only real purpose of the wretched game is to provide a (relatively) peaceful outlet for the chauvinism of the simian hordes who have made it their life-long passion, we have to express regret at the final result. The logic goes as follows. When France beat England our players (or “lads” as I believe they’re known) could still have come out on top; but given that that was not going to be the case, the choice was between hoping France won, so that we would, in effect, have made the final, or hoping to see them utterly crushed and humiliated, regardless of how this reflected on England, just out of spite. The subject being France, we opted for the latter, and were duly rewarded. We then rooted for the team who beat us against the team who beat them, because this would make us look better and them look worse. Alas Portugal, our oldest ally, at least in an area almost as important as football, let us down, thereby making France look quite good and England look like 22 left feet with half a brain between them. Clear? But at least when Beckham and, er, the rest of them came home the press largely blamed a Swiss referee for their defeat. When Tim Henman had the misfortune to encounter that Croatian prodigy in his Wimbledon quarter final, the reaction in the papers was savage, the tabloid headlines unmissable. The only voice of fairness I spotted was that of Simon Barnes who, unusually for a sports journalist, often makes the front page of his broadsheet (The Times), probably because he can write. His thesis was pretty uncontentious. It was that Henman is actually a very good tennis player, and if there are half a dozen or so in the world who are actually better, that is insufficient reason to throw buns at him in the street. Quite so, except that I would go further and observe that anyone whose only skill is to hit, throw, kick or otherwise abuse some sort of ball deserves our pity more than our derision.
But we really are going to have to make up our minds about this. All that “nation of losers” copy that got splashed through the papers last week made pitiful reading. It is largely the tabloid press that has elevated sport to the status of world war, and maintained the British and English self-image of natural, invincible heroes who only ever lose through the incompetence of some scapegoat or cheating from the other side. Forget it, chaps. If we are not very good at something that is because it is something that doesn’t really matter, such as football, or cricket, or tennis, or some other playground knockabout.
Remember that, and you will assist the mental health of the nation by restoring a sense of proportion and priorities. Just don’t go and change your minds again when we win.