The art of sport in satisfying our killer instinct

The art of sport in satisfying our killer instinct

GOING to any match at all as a neutral is a bizarre and often frightening experience, a bit like walking down the local High Street at 2am on a Sunday morning sober. When you work as a sports reporter you are frequently in this position – being an impartial witness at a game that is, not being down the town sober on Saturday night.

We who work the Ruislip beat sit on a bench between the two dugouts. On any given Sunday you’ll see team officials, usually men in their 40s, 50s and 60s, curse, threaten and sometimes square up to each other. This can happen in a county final or in a round-robin stage of a preseason tournament. It doesn’t matter, there’s no game too insignificant to lose the ceann over.

Mad stuff happens so regularly that you rarely even register it. Instead of watching the agro right in front of you – which you’d do if it happened in normal life – you get up to see past them because number 13 (who is wearing the 15 shirt) is shaping up for a shot at the posts.

Sometimes you will look at the row and think ‘this is crazy, they are crazy’. But only for a second.

After a moment’s thought you’ll remember an incident from some recent five-a-side match on the Camden Road when you yourself said or did something far more stupid in a game of even less importance.

The accepted response is to berate yourself or somebody else for losing their sense of proportion. The accepted response is wrong though. It doesn’t matter how lowly a match you’re playing, the act of playing a game – or even attending as a supporter – is as important as almost anything else you’ll ever do.

In his latest book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell tells a brief anecdote about Titus Manlius, a Roman, who undertook a dual with a mouthy Gaul. The Gaul was bigger by far and both armies believed he’d have an easy victory but the swifter Manlius managed to get inside the Gaul’s defence and plunge his sword into his torso, killing him.

Now, most versions of this story I’ve found online since have Manlius taking the Gaul’s torc (it’s a kind of necklace) from the corpse. Gladwell, though, has him chopping off the Gaul’s head, removing the tongue and wrapping it around his neck as a souvenir. This was the version I read first and it shocked me. This was how they settled disputes back in the days before they had sport.

If this was a hurling match it wouldn’t have gone further than a bit of timber being swung and, perhaps, a suspension for striking with the hurley. But this happened back in the days before organised sport, so rows were settled in the field of combat rather than play, or perhaps the CCCC.

I should point out that Manlius, years later, had his own son beheaded for a breach of military discipline so perhaps he was just a particular badass. Yet I’m not sure. Delve into any history book and it isn’t long before, literally, heads are rolling. If anybody lacked a sense of perspective it was these dudes.

I think it comes down to the age-old issue of men having to prove their mettle. With sport, there is no longer a need for death and destruction. Instead you can hit a fella a solid shoulder, score a point from 80 yards, put in a last-ditch tackle; there’s any number of relatively victimless and risk-free acts you can undertake to show your value to the tribe.

That’s the reason why sport is so important to society. Granted, it hasn’t eliminated war but I would argue all day that it has greatly diminished the bloodlust of man (and a few women too, let’s not be sexist here).

Sport is also hugely important to the individual. To many folks it is their main source of purpose and self-expression. Think about it, most people don’t have fulfilling employment. Their job could be well-paid. It could be important. But most fellas you meet do their job for the money; if they won the lotto they wouldn’t be inclined to turn up every day for the enjoyment. But they’d still be involved with their sports team I bet. Why? Eric Cantona can explain it better than I can.

“An artist in my eyes, is someone who can lighten up a dark room. I have never and will never find difference between the pass from Pelé to Carlos Alberto in the final of the World Cup in 1970 and the poetry of the young Rimbaud. There is in each of these human manifestations an expression of beauty which touches us and gives us a feeling of eternity.”

Donal Og Cusack wrote in his autobiography that a young artist’s or poet’s untimely death is never met with talk about this “putting all of that art or poetry into perspective”. Their art was an expression of themself and should be cherished and celebrated as such. The same goes for sport. As Eric says, sport done right is art; a means for us to touch eternity.

Now, I will admit that not everything that happens in Ruislip would make you weep for the artistic beauty of it all. But to be fair, neither would most songs you hear or pictures you see. What’s important is that people are out there trying things, letting their creative side – so often smothered in work – off the leash, aiming for the perfect score, the perfect pass.

They are also sating a competitive instinct that has killed more men and women since the dawn of time than any disease.

This May, as the football and rugby seasons come to a climax and trophies are won and lost and teams are relegated and promoted, you’ll see players and fans rejoice and sink to their ground in tears.

Some people will scoff. This doesn’t matter. It’s not worth any of your tears.

They don’t understand and probably never will. Something that swapped death for art happens in every corner of the earth every day. A failure to appreciate that is a failure to appreciate beauty – or what you might call a lack of perspective.