sport and stories

What is it that drives millions of people to spend substantial wads of free time on any number of sports which might also be considered “silly little games”?

That it can be reduced in such terms is part of the reason we love it.  For all its ability to devastate and demolish us, reduce us to tears, we do know somewhere in the dark recesses of our matter that it is merely a game.  Our lives, by and large, will not depend on the outcome of a match.

Sport attracts the attention of so many with the promise of new stories and the chance to witness their creation.  However small or big.  Individual games provide definite immoveable frameworks which contain an uncomplicated linear momentum of action.  It’s familiar, but leaves much open.  Even if the story is terrible, heartbreaking, empty and desolate; or if the experience leaves you feeling sick, angry, ashamed or embarrassed: that’s still a vivid passionate story.  And one that can be used, retold, reminisced about, maybe even learnt from.

By enfranchising with a sport, you sign up to be part of a story.  There are no guarantees about what kind of story.

We enter into this gamble with games and competition, expecting to feel as much negative as we do positive.  Our craving for involvement in stories drives sport’s success.  From following the twists of a four day cricket test match and half heartedly flicking channels between football matches, to those which extend outside the immediate field of play: seeing a wronged player return to a former team, score a vital and characteristically gutsy goal, but still end up on the losing team.

Committed levels of ritual and routine propel people to attend live sporting events every weekend, or to play a sport itself.  Their commitment to a Saturday afternoon narrative is even better defined.

You leave the house at a certain time, to go to a certain place to meet certain people and go for a drink afterwards.  The opening and closing frames are familiar, comfortable and known.  But that that small segment in the middle, the part you get nervous and excited about, the game itself – there, anything can happen.  Unpredictability is rife.  How exactly will the story pan out?  You might be fairly sure that Manchester United will comfortably beat Portsmouth, your much more coordinated colleague will beat you in a round of golf, or that by the end of the season your team will finish in nowhere midtable again.  It doesn’t stop you from watching and seeing how.  The subplots within each section of the game, personal tussles between players, rare moments of startling elegant beauty.

What keeps players turning up to play football for a quite woeful team week in, week out?  The hope of improvement, the desire to play, compete, keep fit, the desire to maybe sometimes win?  Equal incentives can be found in wanting to be part of it: a community and a group.  But also in a story and how it plays out.  The going on awaydays, the postmortems of incidents last week and several years ago, the reliving of stories – terrible referee, awful journey there, getting lost on the way back, disgusting food after the game, a penalty save; the opportunity to influence the outcome of the story.  Or being able to say that you were there and part of it.

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Much of this Sunday morning was spent completing Paul Auster’s remarkable new novel, ‘Invisible.’  It was the most gripping read I’ve had the pleasure of for some time.  Reading something so exquisitely paced and plotted, with such lightness of touch whilst being so nuanced AND assertive, it makes you wonder why you try writing at all.  What the point is.  You couldn’t dare hope to emulate an atom of this sort of quality.  Sebastian Faulks’s muscularity also does this, although it errs more obviously towards the showy at times.

And yet it serves to inspire too.  To encourage you to try.  There are novels I’ve read which have invoked this feeling more than Auster’s latest, those which are more attuned to my own style and voice perhaps.  Examples escape me.  Nevertheless, there’s something there which inspires.

I could never do that.

But… go on, just let me have a go.

David Beckham smashes in a goal of beauty from some considerable distance, the recognisable angle of his foot striking the ball up and over a wall, with pace, dip and bend.  The goalkeeper has no chance as it nestles into the net over his head.  Amazing.  You could never do that.

During the second half of yesterday’s embarrassing, horrible slaughter of a football match, I saw a gap and broke towards the far right side of the penalty area with the ball at my feet.  A third consecutive touch took the ball within a few yards of the chalked line.  More by luck than any skill of appreciation, I caught up with the ball before my opposite number, edged it away with the outside of my right, and was clattered by a mistimed challenge from my left.

A whistle.  No pain.  Realisation I’d won a free kick in a threatening position.

Go on, just let me have a go.

I don’t usually take offensive free kicks of this kind.  In fact I can’t ever recall taking one in over ten years of playing.  But I’d decided that because I won this free kick, I was having it.  None of my team-mates tried to take it off me, my intention was clear.  I was having a go.

I fantasised briefly, attempting to visualise success in the way dreamers, or anyone with any sort of ambition does.  It could be another uncharacteristically sublime, but essentially pointless consolation goal against the same team I scored against earlier in the season.  A wall of four or five men lined up ten yards from me, partially obscuring my view of the goal.  I tried to rid the fantasy and not think too much about it: thinking too much is the folly of anyone who plays football.  Thinking ruins you.

The whistle blew and I took my first of three steps towards the ball, then measured a right-footed swipe.  Despite arcing pleasingly over the wall – its conjoined heads turning in unison – and being on target, the pace and direction was manageable.  The goalkeeper carefully fielded it into his midriff.

Reading a book like Auster’s is a bit like getting fouled just outside the area.  Look!  Go on.  Try.  Still though, my words too often seem like an ordinary looking strike into the goalkeeper’s midriff, quickly forgettable to anyone except the taker or scribe.

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