Truly, the world of sport has hit a new low. It's hard to believe that were possible, but there can be no other reasonable conclusion. Never far away from the news headlines, acres of verbiage from the shouties, sport – even on a good day – is for some of us the most boring topic on the planet.
Leaving aside the well-established criminal behaviour of some coaches, trainers, medics and others, particularly towards children and young people, there does seem to be something of a common thread woven into a number of sports.
Tennis, for example, used to be a pleasant and often an exciting spectator sport for yours truly. That was before the ancient sturdy walls were assailed by the grunting women, the foul-mouthed men and the tedious spectacle of thwacking aces at goodness knows (and who cares?) how many miles an hour. Punching the air and snarling caught on camera as a sign of accomplishment. Much the same may be said about cricket. Athletics and cycling have been tainted by the widespread intake of pharmaceuticals, prescribed or otherwise. That said, nothing compares to the 'F' word. Eight letters. Nil points.
On a Saturday afternoon, my grandpa and dad would head off to watch one of the local professional teams. There were two teams, but of course the other one wasn't mentioned. At least favourably. Ever. A pie and a pint were part of the ritual, and on days when there was no home game my dad would check the coupons from the teatime results on the radio. I can't recall a single occasion when 'doing the pools' meant winning anything. That apart, the games were enjoyable and affordable for ordinary folk, and the terraces would be well stocked with wee boys – with or without adults.
The players were local heroes, worshipped, talked about and argued over in many a bar and elsewhere. They were probably well enough paid too, by the standards of the day. The club was as deeply embedded a part of the fabric of the community as church and school, and ownership of the club was not widely discussed, probably because there was no reason to question it.
Today, the 'fF word is everywhere, every day: full matches, replays, highlights, headlines, post mortems; commentators shouting above the shouting all around them; camera teams out and about in the desert, showing white plastic tented ghettos aka temporary accommodation; punters hunting for a pint that would cost more than the national living wage.
Ownership of the clubs, and of the game itself, today, is now widely discussed. As ever, ownership reflects in some way the owners' interest. The owners may be overseas private equity funds, overseas governments, overseas oligarchs. And what, precisely, is the nature of that interest? Like the tents in the desert, it may well be temporary or short-term, unlike the lifelong passion, commitment and interest of the fans who buy the season tickets, wear the scarves and wave the flags.
An absentee owner, by comparison, is unlikely to feel the same way about a club as these supporters, so the question remains as to the owner's interest. And when it comes to national teams... who owns them? To whom are they indebted?
Step forward the international associations; the great and the good of world sport; the movers and shakers of broadcasting rights, sponsorship deals, merchandising; the proposers and negotiators; the private jet hoppers of no fixed taxing authority. After all, the World Cup has to be played somewhere, and the groups picked out, like a bingo game: a serious and important business.
And there's the keyword. Business. The business of fame, a rightful place in the scheme of world things, status, power and influence – especially well away from the pitch, before, during and after all the winning and losing are settled on the pitch. Oh, and money. The sound of very fat wallets slapping on tables in luxury private dining rooms is not picked up by the media microphones. They are directed elsewhere, to the roaring and singing of the fans who are paying through the nose for it all.
Enthusiasts still call it the beautiful game. For the rest of us, it's just another boring 'F' word.
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