Sport – World Cup, July 2018


On the terrace of the apartment in France where I am writing this, I can hear the horns of the cars being driven into town in advance of the World Cup Final. It’s between France and Croatia this afternoon. We’re almost alone in the building here in Annecy.  I imagine that our neighbours are in the bars, the hotels or the piazzas (where big screens have been put up) in order to watch the game with others who share the same passion.   At the restaurant where we had lunch today, even while we were having our dessert, the restaurant itself was being prepared around us to receive a hundred or so supporters for the match, with supplies of beer and a huge screen – obviously all that was necessary for a match. 

Sport is, of course, principally a group activity.   Obviously there are the other participants necessary for an activity which is inherently competitive in nature. But there aren’t many participants who would take part without a public, small or large, to cheer for them. In England, there were around 25 million watching the TV during the England - Croatia semi-final, each one at the final whistle in a state of nervous exhaustion. Yes, even I watched it, although perhaps without the same commitment as Heather – I am, after all, Welsh.  The game between France and Belgium took place on a few days ago.  Knowing that one of our neighbours is very much into sport – even at the age of 80, he still plays tennis a couple of times a week – we went up to his apartment at the end of the game, armed with a bottle of champagne in order to congratulate him on his team’s victory.  After the English game the following evening, which saw England’s exit, he, with his wife and grand-daughter, came down to see us, bringing the obligatory bottle of champagne, in order to sympathise with us.  They were two very pleasant evenings, despite the football.

It is now 5 pm, an hour after I started writing this, and the noise level outside has gone down substantially. There’s no longer much traffic on the roads because, I expect, most people are now glued to their screens.   The Champ de Mars in Paris is full to overflowing and the game has started.  I can hear the commentary from our TV inside and from time to time I pop my head in to see what’s going on.  And as I write this, I hear from 2 kilometres away the cheering from the city centre: a goal has been scored, not by France but for the benefit of France – an own goal by Croatia! And after a cup of tea (for me) another goal, this time by Croatia for Croatia … and silence from the fans in town.  But after a few more minutes, as the result of a handball (disputed), a penalty for France and so a score of 2:1 for France – and more noise from the town centre.  We have reached half-time...and breathe!

But the players are like the shirts sold in the Club shops – they are merchandise, bought and sold, for a fortune. Their value goes up and down with the goals scored. They make a fortune for themselves and their agents. The tickets for the games cost a relative fortune for the fans and often cost a real fortune for the club owners, who rarely make a profit from their assets. Often club ownership is just a status symbol. But presumably all of this is justified by the pleasure given to the fans. Obviously in view of the number of people who are fans, they must consider it to be worth the price paid, not only for tickets, but also for the monthly payments to SKY for the right to see the footie on screen.

When the national team goes through a bad patch, however, the fans are very unhappy. They suffer from FRA - football related depression. It can continue, in the case of England, for 50 years. They don’t even dare to speak of their hope of success out loud in case it jinxes the team. In fact, this malady is suffered not only in respect of the national team. For many fans, their team hasn’t had any significant success for a very long time. West Bromwich Albion last won the FA Cup in 1969 and have not had any real success in the league for donkey’s years. And they are highly unlikely to succeed in the future, considering the present arrangements for distribution of the money earned from TV rights, with its concentration of payments to the Premier League.

Supporters of clubs at the bottom of the league or in the leagues below depend, therefore, for their continued hope, upon Illusion. A glorious past provides the illusion that there will be one day, against all probability, an equally glorious future. By definition, however, the overwhelming majority of the teams will not have any significant success. In fact this is a good example of one of the many cognitive prejudices from which we suffer – the so-called ‘sunk cost bias’. Having invested so much over the years in the support of the team, it becomes unthinkable to abandon it, despite the incredibly small probability of a significant return on an investment of enthusiasm (and money) in the future. Not to
continue to be a fan of ‘your’ team, means, in our world view, that the past investment of time and money wasn’t after all justified, and this is something which is psychologically very difficult for us to accept. And so, one could say that almost every club, except the Manchester Uniteds of this world, owe their very existence to our incapacity to think rationally. We want somehow to justify our past actions by continuing to do the same in the future.

But during the World Cup, there was another drama involving football, the ‘Wild Boars’ of Thailand, trapped in an underground system of caves. In this case, the fact that they were an amateur football team was, at one and the same time, the reason why they were in that position and a strength for them in their dangerous situation. As individuals, they would never have entered the caverns, but once in that situation, with their trainer, they were more capable of surviving.  In the end, though, they were saved by the practitioners of another sport of a very different type. The divers who were their rescuers were unknown before this emergency. They are not paid when they carry out their activity.  In this situation, they gave their skill without any expectation of reward and, after the successful rescue, they returned to their normal everyday lives.  What interests them is the personal challenge of finding ways through narrow flooded passageways in underground networks.  And of course, it is no way a spectator sport.  Without doubt there is an element of competition amongst those who do this, but I have the impression that it is principally based on cooperation.  To do otherwise would be to put everyone in danger.   So then who contributed most to the world - those who took part in the World Cup or the divers who risked their lives to save others? And who will be remembered longest by the world in general?

Paul Buckingham

July 2018

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