July 7, 2010

The joy of neutrality

The trick is to find a balance between caring too much about your team and so little as to be unable to appreciate context and plot

Among the pairs of words that can be guaranteed to tax my students (alongside "who's" and "whose", "presently" and "currently", and "it's" and "its"), one stands supreme: "uninterested" and "disinterested". And I think I've finally found a nifty formula: to get the most out of sport, never be uninterested, but do try your utmost to be disinterested.

"I've finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good soccer. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: 'A pretty move, for the love of God.' And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don't give a damn which team or country performs it."

Thus wrote the Uruguayan, Eduardo Galeano, in his book Soccer in Sun and Shadow, diagnosing the ailment wonderfully well. I, too, am a beggar. For good sport in general - albeit only those games involving the pursuit of a spherical or oval object - and cricket above all. I crave the vibrancy of competition, the drama, the uncertainty, the team chemistry, the unique geometric and aesthetic possibilities facilitated by the tussle between man, opposition, environment and ball, the pursuit of excellence, the expression of greatness, the motion and emotion, the magical and the brave, the mystery and mystique. The result only matters inasmuch as it should dispense justice. Because it favours the extremes, the blackest blacks and the whitest whites, extreme emotional involvement can obscure all this. Which is why, like Galeano, I prefer neutrality, albeit with a side order of underdog and fries.

The trick, I guess, is to find a balance. Not caring so much that the fortunes of a collection of athletes over whom you have no control can be hazardous to wealth or health, but enough to appreciate both context and plot. This is, of course, easier said than done. "You pay to witness a sincere contest, not a victory," claimed Simon Barnes in the Times on Monday, but we journalists don't pay to pay witness.

When Chelsea lost the 1967 FA Cup final to Tottenham, the nine-year-old me cried himself to sleep. A year later, though, I was urging Benfica to an equaliser, and extra time, against Manchester United in the European Cup final, not because I was anti-Mancunian, but because live televised football was a rarity and I wanted more. By my late 20s, Chelsea's hooligan supporters had led me to sue for divorce (hence depriving me of any pleasure when they came good), but the national cricket team had blundered its way into the forefront of my heart. Getting to know the players only made me more ardent, as did the mounting defeats. Nothing less was at stake, I was convinced, than the very future of cricket in un-sunny climes.

I loved not wisely but far too bloody well. No passage of sporting play, not even the arch-cynical way Argentina played for penalties in the 1990 World Cup final (proving that negative football is far more productive than negative cricket), has left me as livid as England's meek surrender on the final morning in Adelaide in 2006. That, though, proved a turning point. I was ashamed for caring so much that I surrendered journalistic objectivity, ashamed that I could allow the outcome of a trivial pursuit to so distort my mood. Watching this country's alleged best footballers get thrashed by Germany in South Africa two Sundays ago was only momentarily painful; the overriding feeling was happiness and relief. Happiness because justice had been served, relief that irrational emotion had been eliminated.

Last month I could watch a baseball game from the previous night, follow that up with a live rugby union international from Sydney, switch back and forth between a one-dayer at Lord's and some backhand smashing at Wimbledon, then take in some World Cup footie. Never has there been a better time to get one's kicks from the competitive arts

The joys of neutrality, moreover, have been boosted by the broadcasting moguls who cottoned on to the value of sport as a subscription driver and now dump barrowloads of the stuff into our laps on a daily basis. Flag-waving commentators may do their worst but the action - unlike in the days when newspapers relayed it alone - doesn't lie. Last month I could wake up and watch a baseball game from the previous night, follow that up with a live rugby union international from Sydney, switch back and forth between a one-dayer at Lord's and some backhand smashing at Wimbledon, then take in some World Cup footie. Never has there been a better time to get one's kicks from the competitive arts. Fortunately, when it comes to the remote control, I only have my 17-year-old daughter to compete with. It's a tough life, but somebody has to live it.

For me, World Cup time is when muddied oafery has the edge. FIFA may make the ICC seem like a bastion of propriety and unity, but its showpiece is everything the ICC version wishes it was: efficiently organised, brilliantly marketed, far more susceptible to early tremors and near-constant uncertainty, and utterly sure of itself. On the other hand, it is also over-reliant on fallibility for tension, on hype for meaning and on the Three S's - strength, speed and stamina - for success.

Whatever Galeano might claim, football is almost entirely about the final score (making it all the more astonishing that it still resists video referrals), whereas cricket is about moments and passages. Even during the annus horribilis of 1986, when England were blackwashed in the Caribbean, then lost Test rubbers at home to New Zealand and India, it was still possible to derive pleasure from Mike Gatting's square cut and Peter Willey's bloody-mindedness; during England's goalless draw with Algeria last month I did not find a single stroke of art, nor any other excuse to cheer my countrymen save the small patriotic hurrah that accompanied their survival to fight another day.

THE ALTERNATIVE TO NEUTRALITY can be too horrific to contemplate, as witnessed not only by attacks-in-defeat on spouses and opposing fans but also by the deaths-in-victory that followed Ghana's qualification for the World Cup quarter-finals, echoing as they did so much that has gone before.

Then there's the ignorance otherwise known as jingoism. Dave Zirin, an American sportswriter, broadcaster and author, was offended by an exchange he heard on a Washington DC radio show, Sports Fix with Kevin Sheehan and Thom Loverro, in the wake of the USA's World Cup win over Algeria. "Loverro was dismissive about the quality of the victory, saying, 'When I think of Algeria, all I think about are terrorists and Abbott and Costello movies.' [Given what Algeria suffered at the hands of French occupiers, they probably have a different definition of terrorism.] The two then debated whether United States v Algeria was 'a Grenada game' or 'a Vietnam game', comparing the soccer game to the two wars - Grenada of course being the easy win and Vietnam the tragic loss."

Not that cricket is free of such stereotyping. Encouraged by the Jamaican police, the speculation swirling around Bob Woolmer's mysterious death strayed deep into the wild, bringing with it all manner of anti-Pakistani baggage - "volatile" fans and players, bookmakers and Al Qaeda alike were all cited as potential suspects. In the circumstances, in fairness, anything seemed possible. In their contribution to the latest edition of the Journal of Sport & Social Issues, " 'Woolmergate: Cricket and the Representation of Islam and Muslims in the British Press", Dominic Malcolm, Alan Bairner and Graham Curry argue that, because it was deemed a "human interest" story, Woolmer's death was "more susceptible to the post 9/11 tendency towards more jingoistic, less critical journalism". Nevertheless, they conclude, "it is difficult to see how [it] would directly lead to individual acts of racism, disenfranchisement of Muslim communities" and so forth. Difficult but perhaps not impossible.

When the inexplicable happens, alibis are never far behind. England's early elimination from the World Cup stoked the fires of rumour. The cause, texted an old acquaintance, lay not in fatigue, poor altitude training or - perish the thought - plain old inadequacy, but a leading player's affair with his wife's sister. This may or may not prove to be true, but disinterest is best.

The joys of neutrality were encapsulated, aptly enough, by a Swiss. Roger Federer's opening Wimbledon tie against Alejandro Falla clashed with the Chile-Switzerland World Cup match (not to mention Shivnarine Chanderpaul resuming his latest stoical masterpiece in St Kitts), but as soon as BBC1 presenter Gary Lineker announced that the planet's finest net-evader was two sets down I flipped to BBC2.

The sound was surreal. Here was a primarily English crowd, in poshest South London, giving their lungful, all for two non-Brits (having only one English/Scottish/British/Canadian convert to cheer per year makes for plentiful practice, but still). Here was the neutral's dream: Falla the yapping underdog, Federer the champion's champion. Cue English politesse at its politest: lusty applause and the occasional yelp every time Falla won a point, relieved ovation and mounting yays and screeches whenever Federer replied. Then, after Federer had forced a fifth set and broken serve, came a spectator's plea: "Come on, Falla." Federer's next winner was greeted with a tad less gusto, Falla's next few errors with dejected sighs. It was as if, having coaxed Federer back into the contest, the crowd felt guilty for not doing its duty, for not favouring the underdog. Once Federer had taken the final set 6-0, they resumed their idolatry, content, ultimately, that class had prevailed.

And now, next Tuesday, for the first time since 1912, comes the cricketing neutral's dream: an official Test at Lord's between two talented sides and uninvolving England. Shahid Afridi v Ricky Ponting, Mohammad Aamer v Michael Clarke, Mitchell Johnson v Umar Akmal, Danish Kaneria v Steve Smith, green caps v greener caps. Can't wait. May runs flow and wickets fall and catches stick, and may the better men win. So long as their caps aren't baggy.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton