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25 November 2023

In search of the meaning of sport

A new book shows how sport has shaped British history and society – but cannot explain why it matters as much as it does.

By Lola Seaton

In 1981, Martin Amis wrote an essay about football for the London Review of Books disguised as an ill-mannered review of Desmond Morris’s The Soccer Tribe, which Amis cruelly ignores and then dispatches in his scathing final sentence (“an unfaltering distillation of the obvious and the obviously false”). Amis opens with a wickedly funny wager, rationalising the insolent digression that will follow: his readers “probably like football so much that, having begun the present article, they will be obliged to finish it. This suits me down to the ground.” Setting aside matters of plagiarism and etiquette, could this review have opened in a similar way? Can a reviewer of More Than a Game, David Horspool’s new “history of how sport made Britain”, count on the same obsessive interest as could Amis?

My question is: do people like “sport” as much as they like a specific sport, such as, often enough, football? It seems anecdotally true that everyone who likes sport has a clear favourite. Their liking for sport is secondary and somewhat abstract: the game they love happens to fall under the rubric.

I wouldn’t for a moment want to suggest “sport” is not a real thing, nor cast aspersions on the integrity or usefulness of the concept; there are, of course, “family resemblances” between competitive physical games. But that both tennis and golf feature a ball, for instance, doesn’t always seem an especially profound similarity, and what does the average keen snooker player have in common with the cycling nut? Football and rugby are both contact, team sports that involve kicking a ball between posts and throw-ins, among other things – yet the culture and “spirit” of each game are utterly different. “Sport” is less than the sum of its parts; the genus does not command the emotional allegiance and depth of interest that its members can.

It’s unlikely, therefore, that readers will be equally interested in all of More Than a Game, though an examination of sport in British history and society is in many ways an unimpeachable endeavour. Horspool, an editor at the Times Literary Supplement, gracefully marshals his thorough research into ten well-paced chapters covering the centuries-long histories of ten sports (or nine, excluding the first chapter on the medieval tournament). If the prose can’t be described as wildly entertaining or consistently vivid, it is nonetheless well-controlled and companionable.

The book’s organisation is ingenious, if a touch too tidy: each chapter is devoted not only to a single sport, the history of which Horspool traces chronologically, but to a theme – an aspect of British experience or society on which the sport in question sheds particular light. So the chapter on boxing explores race and racial prejudice (after roughly a century  in which many champions were drawn from “successive waves of immigrants” – Jewish, black, Asian – “interracial” fights were banned from the early 20th century until after the Second World War); the chapter on tennis revolves around questions of gender (British women’s tennis reached a high point in the 1970s – the era of Virginia Wade and Sue Barker – before declining as the men’s game was prioritised); the chapter on rugby examines the sport’s role in the UK’s constituent nations, for whom it “proved inseparable at times from the matter of not being English, and what that meant”.

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[See also: Cheap weapons, new wars]

Among the best chapters is the section on golf, where the connection to the theme – land – seems especially solid (golf “had a transformative effect on the landscape”, and “represents a distinct chapter in a very long contest over property, traditional rights and the removal of land from wider public use”, including for its “commodification for leisure”).

Another intuitive pairing is the chapter on cricket and class, where Horspool makes some astute observations about the “overtones of class in the mechanics of the game”: “cricket represents at once the established order and its potential overturning” (the bowler and fielders try to “overthrow” the batsman) with the “final twist” that the “‘revolution’ of a wicket and a departing batsman only brings another in his place”.

Close readings like these are regrettably scarce, such is the amount of ground to be covered. You learn plenty of facts (oldest continuous sporting contest? The annual cricket match between Eton and Harrow, played since 1805. World’s first football team? Sheffield FC, founded in the 1850s). You absorb insights about the progress of history – that it is rarely continuously progressive, but marred by the creep of regressive forces and bursts of reaction.

Just as the boxing authorities barred interracial fights nearly a century into the sport’s history, there was “a decisive shift in the perception of women’s tennis”, beginning in the 1920s, “from the game being an acknowledged pioneer of equality” to “an early excuse for the public objectification of women”. In football, the FA responded to rising female participation with a total ban in 1921, not lifted until 1971.

Yet whereas, for example, the sociologist David Goldblatt’s The Game of Our Lives (2014) confines itself to just a few pivotal decades of English football, Horspool’s wider remit inevitably entails a shallower kind of attention. And although the longer time frame, stretching well beyond living memory, means that much will be new to most readers, the downside is that many of the stars are no longer household names. Since Horspool rarely has the space to dwell on these bygone personalities enough to render them vividly, the text, at times, becomes a meaningless roll-call.

What I wished the book had been about is the sort of crux Horspool at one point articulates but never directly explores: “the attachment of irrational significance to an activity that is supposed to be a distraction from life’s more serious concerns”. Taking football, for the sake of argument: on a Saturday afternoon, you can see pairs or small entourages of men – mostly they are men – striding with a strange, utterly distinctive kind of purpose up Upper Street in Highbury, north London. They do not even need to be sporting a giveaway red scarf for it to be instantly obvious where they are headed. In their solemn enthusiasm they look as though they are going to work, if work were somewhere they wanted to be. How to characterise that peculiar sense of purpose – the mixture of ardour, duty, belonging? Where did it come from and how is it sustained?

One encounters plenty of plausible, partial explanations – from the psychoanalytic (the discharge of aggression) to the social (the need for community, the liking for tradition) to the commercial (the billions involved in the sports-entertainment complex). As a spectator, most of the time you are wrapped up in the game’s overwhelming significance, so the question doesn’t arise. But at certain moments, the irrationality of the significance strikes you: perhaps when watching players superstitiously press their fingertips to the touchline and then kiss them as they emerge on to the pitch; or seeing a manager – in the Premier League, highly paid, and at least middle-aged – explode with ferocious delight when their team scores.

Perhaps football fans are most regularly reminded that this elaborate agonistic ritual is, notwithstanding Horspool’s title, just a game, during interludes of VAR (video assistant refereeing), subject of unceasing controversy since its introduction to the Premier League in 2019. Pundits and managers mostly complain about VAR’s malfunctioning – when referees make bad calls despite being able to replay the offending incident in slow-motion, or when the drawn-out process of coming to a decision saps the game of momentum.

But even cases of VAR working successfully can be strangely deflating: when, for example, an inspired equaliser is disallowed due to an ultra-marginal offside (the goal is “technically” offside, you want to say, but not spiritually so). Ironically, the effort to make sure a given decision does not seem arbitrary – ie not the split-second judgement of a fallible, overtaxed official, but the scrupulously fair outcome of a bureaucratic, technologically enhanced procedure – draws attention to the inescapable fact of arbitrariness.

VAR so often enrages football fans because it makes them stand and wait and confront this arbitrariness; it rubs it in their faces. It existentially menaces their passion by banalising it: watching video replays they glimpse the void, a world in which the outcomes of the game they love are visibly determined by the meaningless width of a kneecap.

How have we produced this game that matters so much? How have we created a context in which certain movements made by talented (and, in the upper echelons of the men’s game, obscenely well-recompensed) people can be beautiful and meaningful and lastingly memorable? How have we learned, not merely to see, but to feel physically the beauty of a “perfectly weighted” pass that cuts open the defence, or of a shot that arcs gorgeously into the top corner?

That football is so important to so many is absurd, and certainly not in every respect benign. But from one angle, football’s exorbitant significance is wondrous, because it’s stylised proof of a broader truth: that we can make meaning together, that we can and do make things matter for ourselves – not only sport but literature, art, politics. That football matters so blatantly and irresistibly is enough to convince you of – is overpowering evidence for – the existence, and importance, of culture. If football matters, anything can.

More Than a Game: A History of How Sport Made Britain
David Horspool
John Murray Press, 336pp, £25

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[See also: Sarina Wiegman’s mystery playbook]

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This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now