Conceal, don’t feel – the rational under-exuberance at the heart of English sport

English people cannot be entirely trusted with their own feelings. That was the unspoken view of institutions established in the era of empire, when respectable racists saw it the duty of English men to manage the populations of many nations without being corrupted by them.

From our earliest days, we are told of self-control and the unique charm of our understatement. We mock loud Americans and the ‘fiery Latin temperament’ of our Spanish and Italian neighbours. Why? Because, for us, the stiff upper lip is the only thing preventing the beast inside from emerging, roaring and spewing its hatred. There lurked, we suspected, something within us much more hideous than anything we might encounter abroad.

How strange, this week, to find they may have been right all along.

Frozen final

“Papa, if I wear gloves and cut myself off from all human contact, will it make me happy?”
“They say it works for the British Royal Family.”

The smarter institutions recognised that these feelings couldn’t be repressed completely – or at least not forever. We’re a country, after all, not yet fully accustomed to kissing as a social greeting – and we still require heavy drink or sport to allow non-romantic, physical contact and expressions of esteem in public.

After the troubles of this week, and for the first time, I found myself looking a little approvingly at the two biggest current events in sport – Wimbledon and the European Championships. I started to wonder if what I’d taken to be administrative fuddy-duddying might actually be studied, clinical half-heartedness. Perhaps the committee members in charge of our sports understand their role is to provide an outlet for our frustrations, albeit one calibrated very delicately. A little steam must be let off occasionally, rather than explosively.

Seen this way – with sport the only safe place for our passions – the serial incompetence of everything from the MCC to the RFU is transformed into a well-planned part of a finely-tuned mechanism for controlling the national psyche. The FA want England fans to come to games, but they want them registered and given a band to control their excitement. They want you to believe England can be the best in the world, but they skilfully undermine the game at grassroots level to ensure a series of last-16 exits. Never bad enough to see Wembley in flames, never good enough to detract from our economic duties as labourers.

And the All England Club and LTA, they’ll let you paint your face and cheer for a British winner, but only once you’ve queued for hours to access Murray Mount. You can buy Pimms, but being drunk isn’t encouraged. It’s a festival of British tennis, but not with an English winner for decades. And all set in a town so dowdy and unexcited by its global fame you could move it to the Thames Valley, replacing Swindon or Reading, without anyone blinking an eye.

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“Just stick a tennis ball in it, yeah?” The window dressers of Wimbledon gear up for action.

Perhaps, then, these aren’t incompetent old codgers. No, they’re engineers of the soul, overseeing a minute series of delicate checks and balances designed to gently release social pressure through meaningful collective experience.

It’s not an argument, I think, for elitism, but rather for those in positions of power to act with humility, to show respect for organisational memory and to recognise their terrifying responsibilities. Sport is a game, life is not.

If only it were true – that our sporting administration was deliberate – then perhaps it could’ve taught a lesson to our democracy.

Because we used to have relief valves in politics: strikes, marches, shameable public figures, elections that changed things. But then, gradually, our melting pot became a pressure cooker as successive governments cut themselves off from public and parliamentary accountability, in thrall to the managerial mind-set and a growing belief in presidential government. A patrician sense of responsibility was replaced by business-like contempt for citizens as little more than units of productivity. New technology and changing patterns of media use, meanwhile, meant our voices became only virtual. We are all alone in a room watching the world go by, observing – and sometimes yelling – but only minimally participating.

Last Thursday, David Cameron’s referendum exploded that pressure cooker, spilling long-repressed English ugliness everywhere. In a miscalculation that will merit a whole chapter in future books on systems of government, he allowed a nation increasingly infuriated by powerlessness to take an extra-parliamentary rage-shit on its own future. And so now we are turning on one another; racist abuse has returned to our streets; and our politicians have run for cover, preferring the familiar, comforting routines of leadership elections to the challenge of healing a nation of confused, wrathful monsters.

I’m as baffled and bewildered as the rest of us. And so, this week, I’ve lost myself in the gentle charm of the shop windows of Wimbledon.

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“Game, set and match, your skin.”

I’m in the town often, especially around tournament time, when I delight in misdirecting people. (It doesn’t matter what you tell visitors, they expect Centre Court to be lurking less than a minute’s walk from wherever they accost you – perhaps behind a bin or a bike rack – and point-blank refuse any advice not to try and walk.)

Each year I used to snap the lamest efforts at window decoration and chuckle to myself how backward much of English culture is. Today, though, I found solace in their Earl Grey weakness.

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“My kid made an urn, a frame and a giant strawberry at nursery.”
“Fine, stick ‘em in as well.”

If you didn’t know better about the cunning, beblazered overlords of our sport, you might think Wimbledon would be a bit more hyped about its two weeks in the global spotlight.***

It isn’t; that would never do. No, instead a very efficient bus and taxi system pops-up unheralded to get people to the club. Streetlights swap their winter wardrobe of desultory seasonal greetings for faded, unfashionable tennis banners. Human billboards, dressed to create a tenuous link to the championships, give out fun-sized sample packets of new crisp flavours or distribute leaflets informing you it’s game, set and match to an company with a terrific deal on holiday insurance.

But everything is always low key and underwhelming – as though the town fears it may be laughed at for fully getting into the spirit of things.

These are not the exuberant, high-impact displays of Oxford Street at Christmas. Andrew McCarthy would find nothing to fall in love with. No, they look like this…

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“A poster, right: ‘Get some serene wheeliams!’”
“Just stick a tennis ball in it, yeah?”

Or this:

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Serving up the best food so you return to our restaurant!”

Or this:

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“We haven’t got any tennis balls, boss.”
“A racquet then! Who cares?”

In other words, the worst kind of cheap, half-and-half-scarf participation. But isn’t it cosy and soothing? A reminder of a softer world. Perhaps that’s exactly what we need right now?

Serious question: if I offered you two thousand pounds, would you be willing to live in your next door neighbours’ spare room for two weeks? The only catch is you’d have to have your partner and two kids there as well. That’s five hundred smackers a head for a fortnight of discomfort. It’s just pocket money according to the Daily Telegraph Raheem Stirling app, but think of what you could do with the cash. Oh, and if you like it, the offer is good for next year too.

In that situation, I guess most of us could manage to be a little more neighbourly than usual. We’d huddle together and think of the cash.

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“We need a shit-hot Wimbledon pun this year…”
“Or a really crap one will do.”
“Yeah, ok… All Bar Wimble-One?”
“Whatever.”

This isn’t a low grade behavioural economics experiment. Friends of mine recently got the offer and said yes. They, you see, are fortunate enough to live in Merton, within 15 minutes’ drive of the All England Club.

If you live closer to the courts, say ten minutes’ walk, and have a place that’s more palace than end-of-terrace, I’m told you can get more than five times that amount. There are even estate agencies that specialise in it.

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“Fish on grass! What the hell is that?”
“Well, it’s what we do, right, and they play on grass!”
“Might as well call it ‘Fish on drugs’. Makes as much sense…”

Whatever they lack in spirit, our benevolent administrators make up for in financial savvy. The economics of Wimbledon, like the Premier League, are astonishing. The All England Club will pay out over £28m in prize money this year alone, and yet the championships are still run largely by amateurs, supported with a skeleton professional staff.

Go to Wimbledon on 48 of 52 weeks in the year and you’ll think you’ve arrived during in a giant game of hide-and-seek. Building after building of empty rooms. A huge press centre, with media outlets’ names above deserted desks – Sports Illustrated, Le Monde, Herald Sun – where absent journalists will battle the heat and noise, noses pressed to monitors, cranking out the ball-by-ball commentary. Grass that’s warmed, sheltered and cut one millimetre a day on court after court that are only played two weeks a year. Suppliers – they don’t call them sponsors – who pay millions a year to provide crucial things without which no top class sporting activity can manage, like barley water and giant timepieces, help bolster the TV income to produce an event that makes tens of millions of pounds profit a year.

Oh, yes, they understand the passion that drives us.

If you doubt it, go round the terrific Wimbledon tennis museum, with brilliantly spooky interactive video displays of John McEnroe explaining how he fought his many enemies and a reflex-testing game that children queue up to batter.

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“Is it safe for kids to drink and drive in one of these?”
“Who cares? We’ve got a shop to open.”

As a long-time supporter of a small football club, I always used to say: celebrate early, celebrate often. Treat every goal as a trophy, every foul as a personal assault. Don’t wait for the final whistle, with its crashing depression or orgasmic joy.

I used to mock the polite applauders, those who can shuck off a defeat in minutes rather than days. I thought that English reserve – our fear of the beast inside – was a major problem, an impediment to developing athletes with a winning mind-set and our relentless march to that second World Cup. We needed to embrace and release our most animalistic intensity.

But what I saw this week changed my mind about the role of passion in sport and politics. We need to embrace it, yes, but also to channel it. And we need to learn from sport – we need to reopen those political pressure values, creating a more responsive, representative democracy that acts for all.

Great Britain’s greatness can’t any longer be accessed in a now receded and largely imagined past. Village greens and unlocked backdoors and genteel incompetence can’t be voted back into existence. But the best of us lives on in our a passion for sport, not as a mark of triumphalism, but as a place of social solidarity and as a demonstration of our proudest virtues – lion-hearted valiance, fair play and a national team ever more representative of Britain – one of the most interesting and most ethnically and socially diverse nations in the history of human civilisation.

Sport can foster togetherness, smoothing cultural, religious and racial divides and replacing them with arbitrary, non-discriminatory allegiances to teams. We could do with a bit of that right now.

So let’s hope sport can do its work in forthcoming weeks and months, bringing us together in joy rather than fury, helping channel our basest instincts and leaving us ready to reunite and work out what the hell we do next.

In future I won’t be so quick to mock our diffidence, our half-heartedness and our tolerance for sporting failure. It’s not the winning, it’s the losing together that counts.

Better we fail at a hundred World Cups than ever have another week like this.

 

Martin Calladine

 

If you enjoyed this, please buy my book “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL”. That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.

 

 

 

*** It is, after all, one of the very few places in the world that’s globally recognisable to just about anyone for its sporting connections. How many other places are there like Wimbledon? Famous stadiums we know: the Camp Nou, the San Siro, the Maracanã, the Bird’s Nest. But actual places whose names are synonymous with sport. What is there? Wembley? Augusta? Ascot? I’m guessing Wimbledon has more instant global recognition than any of them.

 

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