I’m constantly encouraged to celebrate observing drunk people behaving boringly

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

We have to like public drunkenness. It is a moral imperative. Commentating on the Ashes over the next seven weeks, I will be encouraged to celebrate every intoxicated buffoon, probably dressed as a giant panda, who falls over in the stands, spilling his pint of lager over half a row of genuine fans who’ve paid £100 for the right to watch a cricket match and have ended up with an obscured view of the sport, replaced instead by the full panda experience. What japes, what larks, what good times had by all, so much to celebrate! This is the media’s default position: the more empty bottles on the terraces, the greater the occasion. “They’re having a great day out, eh?”

I am baffled by several elements of this narrative, which will be repeated throughout the Ashes. First, that pouring alcohol down your throat, scarcely a challenging athletic feat, is considered an achievement. Second, that it contributes majestically to the sense of sporting occasion and the gaiety of nations. Third, that the long-suffering, quiet majority don’t summon the courage to object – perhaps they are wary of being told to lighten up and have some fun. Finally, is anyone enjoying themselves anyway, including – indeed especially – the panda?

Attending a major sporting event is like boarding a plane. The same question looms, laden with frightening potential: who am I sitting next to? You anxiously scan both sides, assessing where problems might arise. Will the bottom belonging to the oversized American break the seat? Is the flip-flop wearing fake hippie en route to Goa going to rest his foot on your travel blanket indefinitely?

The difference is that taking a flight is a means to an end. The pleasure, in principle, will follow soon afterwards. A sports match, in contrast, is the final destination, the fun itself. So it is no small issue if the fans in front of you spend half the match standing up and shuffling along to buy and consume beer, and the other half standing up and shuffling along to release from their bodies the beer they have just consumed. The celebration of drunkenness fills the whole day, before and after play, so that no second is safe from invasion. Earlier this season, after a one-day international in Nottingham, I took the late train back to London. A group of spectators, well-dressed and articulate, clearly wealthy professional types, arranged themselves nearby in the same carriage. They swayed and swore, shouting as though silence might kill them, manfully keeping up the pretence that this was wonderfully enjoyable for them and for everyone else. The traveller in me began to shuffle away. The writer craned forward.

Their conversation, such as it was, began at a low level, from which point it lurched downwards. Cheerful descriptions of their own bodily functions gave way to self-congratulatory estimates of how much they’d drunk so far, then calculations of how much more they were about to drink, how much the whole thing had cost them, before settling finally and unconvincingly on mutual reinforcement about how “great it is to be completely free and away from the missus”. But the unsettling question hung over them: total freedom and this is the best we can manage?

Their grimly determined drinking was accompanied by even more effortful laughter, as though a joke had to come round the corner eventually. They half-heartedly proposed stag jaunts to exotic locations. But enthusiasm for another bout of drinking and canned laughter waned as soon as actual dates were suggested.

For everyone else in the carriage, the journey was excruciating. The more curious aspect was that the protagonists also seemed uncertain they were enjoying themselves. None of us can be sure where another finds pleasure. But there was the sense of dutifully acting out a part, falling into a script that had been written for them. And as they lost confidence, the whole performance became more of a struggle.

They ran out of spectators, too, and selfconscious “indulgence”, expensive and cheap at the same time, is partly fuelled by a sense of display. As everyone else nodded off, the energy drained from the act. By the time we reached London, hints of looming shame mingled with the prospect of relief – the act could soon be dropped and the “fun” replaced by just living.

No day has ever been damaged by the spectacle of genuine joyousness. It’s the fraudulent stuff that leaves a bad taste. Authentic fun is infectious, inauthentic fun the opposite. I am no puritan. I pursue pleasure wherever I can. I enjoy drinking alcohol almost every day. My objection is that these people are amateurs. They don’t know what they’re doing. It’s hard to know which is worse: that they’re damaging everyone else’s day, or that they’re failing even to enhance their own. Observing people drinking ineptly has the same desperate quality as overhearing ham-fisted attempts at seduction.

What does a pleasurable day at the cricket really look like? Breakfast (with serious coffee) near the ground, taking in the nervous excitement on the faces of both sets of fans; arrive before play, to hear the hum of the crowd slowly find its full voice; a glass of wine at lunch; the interweaving of cricket and conversation, one taking up the slack when the other wanes, with no pressure on either to fill all the space; a cold pale ale, the bottle frosted with condensation, in warm sunshine at 6pm; finally, over dinner, shared reflections on the match, memories deepening with friendship.

No one will single you out for eye-catching displays of “fun”. Your memories will be unique, but your contribution was anonymous. That is not to say you didn’t do anything special. You were part of a crowd and you played your part fully. The game and the day were better for you being there. Let’s celebrate that.

The celebration of drunkenness fills the whole day, so that no second is safe from invasion. Photograph: Getty Images

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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