Games people play

Why team spirit leaves me cold

The Wales v England match at Cardiff Arms Park in 1987 was a brawl. From the kick-off both teams were determined to get their retaliation in first. Alan Watkins described the 19-stone prop forward Gareth Chilcott as “the Japanese wrestler from Bath” and observed that a generation earlier, in the corresponding fixture of 1963, the occupant of Chilcott’s position, Nick Drake-Lee, weighed just over 12 stone.

Today the game abounds in Chilcotts. Twenty-stoners are the norm, hardly worth a mention. A neck the girth of a thigh is standard issue. The recent World Cup in Japan was a festival of biceps boosted with subcutaneous medicine balls. Packs of 150 stone are everyday items. Backs are commensurately vaster. The greatest player I have ever seen, the Welsh outside-half Phil Bennett, was 11 stone. South Africa’s extraordinary scrum-half, the bottle-blonde Faf de Klerk — out of Miss Piggy by former teen idol David van Day — may be only 5ft 6ins but he weighs 14 stone and isn’t scared to kick the sand back in the bigger boys’ faces.

Ever more distended bodies are an effect of the game’s quarter-century of professionalism. No doubt in the last years of shamateurism players were rewarded (gifts, sinecures, business introductions, etc) but with rare exceptions they did not appear to belong to a developing genus of human-beast, a manimal bred specifically to pulp and be pulped on Saturdays in the way that Kobe, Wagyu, Angus, Limousin, Charolais and Hereford are raised for the table.

A second effect of professionalism has been to turn promising flankers and outside-halves into DIY genealogists, unearthing distant relatives whose late existence may validate a claim to be eligible for selection by one of the “major” rugby nations. Better an Australian reserve than an automatic choice in Vanuatu’s starting line-up. Little ponds are less lucrative.

Conversely, some years ago a Millwall footballer, a south-east Londoner who had spent most of his career in the lower divisions and was resigned to never playing for England, was happily astonished to discover that he had been chosen to represent the Republic of Ireland because his great-aunt had once holidayed on the Dingle Peninsula.

The apostate is the person who simply doesn’t care who wins

One aspect of watching the World Cup or indeed any sport on French telly is that the excitable commentators adhere to the risible sentimental myth that the country is “colour blind”, so this nationalism of convenience is not remarked on. It is however cheering that TF1’s commentators are strangers to the dismal pieties that their evangelical British counterparts proudly and repetitively display: that sport is somehow morally improving, that so and so with the daft haircut is a great “role model” for any youngsters watching, that sports fields are sacred and that to build on them is environmentally wicked and culturally catastrophic, that team spirit is to be encouraged as the ne plus ultra of comradeship. Sport — more properly games — has turned into proxy religion, a very primitive religion whose theologies are few and simple but whose theolatries are legion.

The apostate is the person who simply doesn’t care who wins, whose supreme indifference undermines the whole enterprise, who doesn’t give a toss if gloating Goliath Jeff Thompson takes out plucky David Dennis Amiss with a 100 mph ball to the unprotected head. My choice of players from almost half a century ago suggests, correctly, that I don’t know the names of today’s guys in Dayglo pyjamas with motorcycle helmets. I am unbothered by my ignorance.

I do, on the other hand, know that “team spirit” is a euphemism for “only following orders”, for collectivity, for joining in, for being strengthened by the mob whose force of numbers steals individuality, for abjuring personal responsibility and free will, for bullying those who neglect to sign up.

I do know that one of the delights of London Overground is the unofficial metropolis: ragged back gardens, bonfires and alleys by Carel Weight; ground elder and buddleia; terrains vagues in countless versions; fences collapsed by creepers; jerry-built extensions; sprouting pyramids of cinders and sand; rows of lock-ups; sports grounds. That is: deserted sports grounds, surrounded by poplars, bereft of all human activity whether sodden in winter or parched in summer. It is as though the kiddy hordes who are supposed to be inspired to emulation by professional sportspersons are inspired only to spectate, to sing the club song which is invariably a version of “When The Saints Go Marching In”, to “take pride in the badge” on this season’s kit, to get hammered en masse at 11am because the kick-off time is determined by the demands of Thai TV. We are passive footballers and rugby players.

The PE teachers, flagwavers for the Olympics and out-to-grass footballers paid a fortune by the BBC to display their micro-lexicons have their antecedents, not that they are aware of them: Newbolt’s preposterously gung-ho “Vitae Lampada”, written in 1892, is a prediction of the carnage just over 20 years later. Its pure-corn public school patriotism was derided in the trenches, just as we should deride the champions of brawn over brain.

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