As a rule, I do not write much about sport. This is not because of any lack of interest or commitment. Contrariwise, as Lewis Carroll might have said, I am a total enthusiast. I love sports, I loved playing them at many levels and in many formats. If I do not write much about them, it is because I love them too much. Sports, I reckon, have quite enough opinionated articles banging on about them without my adding to that number unnecessarily.
That said, however, this is a glorious summer of sport and it is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid writing about them, both from a positive point of view and, indeed, from a negative one.
On the positive side, sport – both playing it and watching it – has given me some of the greatest moments of enjoyment that I can remember. Going back more than fifty years now (is it really that long?) as a schoolboy, I was one of the hundred and thirty-five thousand spectators at what was arguably the greatest football match between two clubs ever witnessed. That was the 1960 European Cup Final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park in Glasgow. My father had taken me there as a present for doing well in my exams and we saw a game that will probably never be matched.
The great Real side, including such wonderful names as di Stephano, Gento, Santamaria, and the immortal Ferenc Puskas, won 7 – 4 in a game that will never be forgotten, either by those of us who were lucky enough to be there on that night or by those who can still marvel at it in old black and white television film.
Curiously enough, several years later, I had the privilege of seeing that Real Madrid side again. My home team, Kilmarnock, had won the Scottish League and had qualified for the European Cup. In the first round, Killie safely disposed of a team from Tirana (and , yes, it sent us scurrying to our atlases too to find out where they came from). In the second round, Kilmarnock drew Real Madrid with the first leg in Scotland. By that time, both Puskas and Gento were veterans, portly little gentlemen. The Scottish fans, being above all football enthusiasts, applauded them politely as they trotted sedately onto the pitch.
They applauded even more politely when Gento and Puskas touched the ball about twice in the first half. Real Madrid scored both times. The first leg was a 2 – all draw. Needless to say Real Madrid won the second leg comfortably in Spain.
It was a privilege and a pleasure to see “greats” like them at the height of their powers. I can offer no greater praise than to say that I was reminded of them this summer as I watched Spain win Euro 2012, playing a brand of football that I can only describe as a reminder to us all what makes football the beautiful game.
Of course, my first love is rugby. I played my first game at the age of eleven and I played my last game at the age of 54, so, by definition, I am an addict. It took thirty years after that great game of football before I ever experienced anything like the same emotions watching rugby. Fast forward to March 1990. The venue was Murrayfield in Edinburgh, and the game was Scotland versus England.
Both teams had beaten everybody else in the International Championship that season, so at stake were the Calcutta Cup (the traditional trophy between Scotland and England), the Triple Crown, and the Grand Slam. England started as firm favourites having scored 83 points in their previous three games, as against Scotland’s 47.
Nobody told the Scots. As the teams took the field, England trotted on as teams usually do. A few minutes later Scotland appeared, led by their captain, David Soul, in what can only be described as a slow, measured, menacing, gladiatorial stalk. That set the tone for the game. In short, we knocked seven bells out of the auld enemy and, by God, it was enjoyable.
As I have said. Rugby will always be my first love, not just because of the relish of physical contact, but mostly because even now in the 21st century, when sport has become much more big business than pure sport, rugby retains so much of the old Corinthian spirit. In what other game nowadays can an international front-row forward – inevitably an Irishman – take the field, see a packet of cigarettes and a lighter fall out of his shorts, and hand them to the referee with aplomb, and ask the ref to keep them for him until half-time because, as he explained: “I’m not that keen on oranges.”
So much for happy memories. I am told that the culmination of this glorious summer of sport will be the 2012 Olympics in London. Aye, fine. Include me out. I am one of these curmudgeons who think the Olympics are a total waste of time, effort, money, and space.
They are, in short, the complete antithesis of what sport is supposed to be about. They are too big, too bloated, too dictated to by commercial sponsors, and too much a self-advertising exercise for committee men and committee women. I am told that seven years ago when London “won” the games, there was dancing in the streets. There is not much dancing now, primarily because most of London’s streets are closed to Londoners, so that the fat cats can be ferried to and from the games in their chauffeur driven limousines. So much for sport. After seven years of planning, the company charged with providing security – despite expecting a 50 million pound plus management fee – with six days to go still cannot say exactly how many bodies they are going to be able to put on the ground. Its Chief Executive does not believe he has done anything wrong. I have a new role for him. In the javelin. As a target.
When you get to the stage when you have to put anti-aircraft missile batteries on top of residential houses to protect the games, then the games are simply not worth holding.
You think I am joking? Watch the opening ceremony. For every competing athlete parading around, there will be at least ten officials from each team, florid-faced be-blazered nonentities, whose only contribution to athletics has been breaking into a run whenever somebody offered a free lunch, a goodie-bag, or over the market price for the tickets they were given as a gift.
I will not be watching.