The daft sentimentality of the British sports fan

Why do the British love a charismatic loser so much?

We Brits have a very strange attitude to our sporting heroes. Andy Murray’s face doesn’t fit with the British public - and not just because it rarely breaks into a smile. Murray threw us all last week because he succeeded in reaching the Wimbledon final. Not through fluke or guile or an improbable defiance of the odds. He succeeded simply by being brilliant at what he does. Which, according to the public, was a little bit dull and annoying. I hosted a phone in on a national sports radio station straight after the semi final last Friday where 90 per cent of callers said they’d be supporting Roger Federer in the final. Why? “Murray’s a bit miserable and scruffy” was the general response.

This is a quintessential characteristic of the British sports fans. We are immersed in sentiment, preoccupied with personality and yearn less for cold, efficient victory than we do for the dramatic romance of defeat.

Every British sports fan is forever waiting for that Gazza moment: the emergence of a maverick figure, rendered great by instinctive talent not methodical coaching, and driven by volatile emotion not clear-eyed will to win.  But what really immortalized Gazza was that he often wore comedy fake breasts and sometimes cried. The images of him doing so were captured forever and held dear to every football fan’s hearts. The loveable fool, the genius man-child, the wide-eyed idiot savant, stealing emotional collapse from the jaws of a glorious triumph. This is the sporting narrative that has obsessed the British public ever since.

But the truth is that Gazza was a failure. He showed glimpses of what he might have become back in 1990 but, from the moment he burst out in tears that night in Turin, he never came close to fulfilling his potential ever again. That’s why he is loved and romantiscsied so much. He could have been like his German counterpart that night, Lothar Mattahus, who went on to lift the World Cup before triumphing in a succession of other tournaments for club and country. He was not cheeky, daft, charismatic or given to stumbling drunk out of kebab shops in full view of the paps. And that was no coincidence either. He was a winner, so he went to bed early and trained hard every day. That kind of application doesn’t play with the British public the way it does with the Germans. Perhaps it’s because the British public see something slightly vulgar in winning.

We love charismatic losers like Gazza, Jimmy White, Alex Higgins, George Best and Frank Bruno. The rogues and chancers who blew their talent – or just weren’t quite that good enough. The real winners we have produced, from Steve Davis to Linford Christie to Lewis Hamilton to Lennox Lewis, have been deemed too dull and robotic to fully qualify for our affections.

We like our sporting icons to be ‘human.’ That is to say we like them to be flawed, ordinary, dumb and often drunk. Perhaps it was possible to be ‘human’ and successful a few decades ago, when international footballers could turn up five minutes before kick off smoking a fag with a fried breakfast inside of them and still bag a hat trick. But sport is more serious than that nowadays. There will never be another Gazza because someone like him would be lucky to be playing in the higher divisions of non-league football nowadays. Being ‘human’ and being successful are now mutually exclusive characteristics.

We Brits regard sport as a soap opera: everything must be richly infused with sentimentality and melodrama. According to the outraged critics who condemned Stuart Pearce over the matter, David Beckham should have been part of the Team GB not because he was one of the best British footballers available but because he was an icon, a patriot and a man who addressed television interviewers with an appealingly boyish politeness. This is the X Factor generation, who want their sports stars like their talent show contestants: either tragic, or comic, or both  - and with a back story that can be neatly encapsulated in a ninety second montage to the accompaniment of a Coldplay track.

But of course, Andy Murray should not have to wear fake breasts, eat a kebab or perform hilarious impressions of other tennis stars in order to convince us he is human. The ins and outs of his character shouldn’t be here nor there to any of us who love sport for what it is: a contest of physical prowess. Unfortunately, too many Brits regard a serious demeanor to be alienating and objectionable rather than an admirable sign of a winning mentality. Yes, Olympic Gold Medals are all very well for other countries. But over here, nothing quite matches up to the dubious prestige of the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year.

Sam Delaney writes for The Guardian and is a host on talkSPORT. Follow him on Twitter @delaneyman

 

Andy Murray: good at tennis, but "a bit miserable and scruffy" for our tastes. Photograph: Getty Images

Sam Delaney also writes for The Guardian, The Big Issue and numerous others.  He is the author of two books: ‘Get Smashed – The Story Of The Men Who Made The Ads That Changed Our Lives’ and ‘Night Of The Living Dad.’ He has written and presented documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4 and is a host on talkSPORT radio.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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