September 23, 2004

The losers

I don't write about football any more. Which is sad in a way, as once upon a time I thought that was going to be my living. There's all sorts of reasons why, but one of them is that while, over the last ten years, it's become easier and easier to publish sports books of no merit or originality whatsoever, I found it was getting harder and harder to have anything published that I particularly wanted to write. I particularly want to write things that I want to say but nobody else seems interested in saying - something which in itself makes it difficult to show that anybody else is going to be interested in reading. It's very difficult. Too difficult. I can't do difficult things any more.

One book I had wanted to write would have been called The Losers. Sport is nearly always written about in terms of winning - even if there are all sorts of disasters on the way, it nearly always ends in victory. We identify with winners, winners are interviewed about being winners, and if they come from the right social circle they end up giving motivational seminars to businesspeople about how to be a winner. Winners are sung about, winners are invited to civic receptions and meetings with the Prime Minister, winners appear on chat shows and become pundits and go on A Question Of Sport.

To say so much is nothing original in itself, just a statement of the obvious and a much-repeated one at that. Even the exceptions are generally exceptions that prove the rule - like Colin Montgomerie and Jimmy White, who are famous for not having won what they prized most, but who should have done - because normally, they're winners. There is the occasional book, or documentary, about fringe players, disillusioned players, teams who lose and always lose - And Smith Must Score - but such things are rare.

Which is odd, and not odd. Not odd because most public interest in sport is about winning. Not only are people mostly interested in the top echelon of any sport, by definition those people who have beaten most of their opponents to get where they are, but they get a great deal more interested when there is the possibility of winning. Tim Henman at Wimbledon would be one sort of example. Another would be the brief but real enthusiasm for winners such as the curling team who won a gold medal at the Winter Olympics, in matches watched by millions of people who had never seen a curling match before, who never would again, and who had not the faintest idea, while watching, what was going on or why. Or the people who watched Paula Radcliffe failing to win the Olympic marathon, an event which normally few people would have patience or motivation to watch.

Not odd, because winning is what sport is about. It is what distinguishes it from other cultural activities. Contests can, and do, take place, even in the performing arts - one thinks, for instance, of the plays which have come down to us from ancient Greece, or all of which were specifically written to be entered for competition. But only in sport is that competition the point, the purpose, the overriding goal, the nature of the thing itself. We try to win - we do not, or not legitimately and honorably, try to lose. So even before we ask why we find it so important to identify with winners, why we consider this important in our lives, winning is what matters, it is what we are fundamentally trying to do.

So not odd. But odd nevertheless. Because for every winner, almost by definition, there must be at least one loser and probably many more. So sport is full of losers, and yet they hardly get a mention. Lionise the plumage, and forget the dying bird. And this is what I wanted to write about. I wanted to talk to people who had lost, mostly to people who had lost and were therefore forgotten when otherwise they would have been remembered. Perhaps members of the Luton Town side of 1985, which lost an FA Cup Semi-Final which they were leading, against all expectations, with about four minutes to go. Their bus passed mine on the way home, and while everybody got up and applauded the players for their effort and their passion spent, I have rarely seen sportsmen look so devastated as these did. The image (and the occasion) has stuck in my mind, and for that reason if no other, I wanted to take it out, look it at and write about what it meant.

I wanted also to write about whether we are not, in fact, nearly all of us losers, and whether glorifying in victory and shunning the defeated does not, in fact, merely imprison us in the role which we are pretending to escape. And I wanted to write about that very term, Losers, and how brutal and vile and contemptible it is. Yet how bound up it is with the way we live and the way we are expected to live. There's a passage that has also stuck in my mind, from Slaughterhouse-Five, one whose strength Vonnegut disguises, in his paradoxical way, by putting it in the mouth of an American Nazi and traitor:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kim Hubbard, "It ain't no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be." It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power or gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: "If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?" There will also be an American flag no larger than a child's hand - glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue, the monograph went on. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.

Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.

We don't bother with losers. Which means we don't bother with ourselves. Or means that we rejoice in rules which make a game we cannot, will not win. Which truth is demonstrated by the fact that we have to find other people's victories to attach ourselves to. To have to search for someone else to be a winner confesses yourself the opposite, is this not obviously the truth?

I was thinking about all this again this morning because I was thinking about Brian Clough, and his "rise to the top", his two European Cups and all the rest of it, great achievements all. And suddenly it occurred to me that I had no idea who was the Malmo manager in 1979. Getting them to the European Cup Final must have been every bit as great an achievement as winning the trophy with Nottingham Forest. What Clough achieved, remarkably, with his English side must have been all but matched by his opposite number in Sweden. Yet I have no idea who did it. I have even tried to look it up without success. I am beaten, defeated, not up to the task. We record those things that matter. Therefore, what is not recorded, matters not. He did not win. And losers make no mark.


At April 17, 2007 4:09 am, Blogger Colin Campbell said...

So it goes.

As a Scot, I am sure that there would be a huge market for this kind of book. Scots are masters at this. Being competitive and when the chips are down, folding. It is part of our national psyche.


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