Sports fans of a certain age reminisce about huddling round a crackling wireless to listen to the ‘Matthews Final’, or joining half the street in cramming into the living room at no. 20, where they had a TV, to watch England win the World Cup in black and white. It sounds quaint in the age of wall-to-wall Sky and Setanta, yet a fortnight ago I found myself experiencing the modern equivalent as I hunched over my laptop squinting at the windowette of live feed from Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, scene of the biggest football match in Europe that weekend.
It seemed worth it when, on 50 minutes, a Lowry-esque figure swung in a threatening cross and Roma’s Julio Baptista—unmistakable, even in low-definition—rose to guide a perfect header low to the left of the Lazio keeper. It reminded me of Jurgen Klinsmann in his early 90s pomp, whose brilliant headed goals I’d seen so much more clearly on my mum’s clapped-out cathode ray Ferguson. Now, via broadband, I watched a cubist mass of colour pulse in triumph on the curva sud, while the blob warming up for Lazio on the touchline could only have been a kitchen sink, given the desperation with which the biancoceleste pixel-men began to pour forward.
My frustration at having to watch this brilliant sporting spectacle on a post-it note of a screen is only partly explained by my love of Serie A. The annoyance is doubled by the meaningless alternative fixtures offered on Sky and Setanta, clogging the EPG like cholesterol in a furred artery. I could have sampled Lille v St Etienne, or Estudiantes v Argentinos Juniors—but to me, those games didn’t matter.
In the last fortnight we have endured the fourth round of the Carling Cup (is it nearly over yet?) and a midweek of international friendlies. I enjoyed Wales’s performance in Denmark; shame it didn’t count for anything. Why schedule these games for mid-November, four months ahead of the next meaningful qualifier? Plenty of Premier League managers asked the same question. We must pity the poor sports journalist, who not only gets a press pass to the Champions League final, but also has to cover the dross that acts as filler in the cable and satellite schedules.
We are in danger of creating an era of Meaningless Sport. Our summer game, cricket, is practically dead at domestic level. Attendances go unpublished, for the excellent reason that they would be hugely embarrassing. Aside from the handful of teams that find themselves in contention, no-one cares about the myriad county tournaments, which seem to find their raison d’etre as sponsorship opportunities more than sporting contests. It’s widely believed that the only appeal of the IPL is the money, but how about the attraction of playing in front of passionate full houses?
Rugby is going the same way as our domestic cricket, particularly in Wales, where artificial ‘regions’ field weakened sides against unfamiliar opponents while waiting for the Heineken Cup to come round. Even England’s feted Guinness Premiership schedules games to clash with internationals—while England took on the world champions at Twickenham, Leicester were playing Harlequins at Welford Road. As for football, most of its competitions have been fading for years, with the FA Cup, Carling Cup, and UEFA Cup reduced to a status similar to the Pontins Reserve League of seasons past.
How to sustain interest when your channel of choice shows the England U-16s, but not the senior side? What to do when you’ve seen the first leg of a tie live, but the second leg’s on another channel, which you don’t have? How to get worked up about Vitesse-Feyenoord in lieu of the Rome derby? What interest in pitting Arsenal’s youth team against Wigan? Advice is helpfully provided during the commercial break: ‘It matters more when there’s money on it’, Skybet tells us.
Here’s a thought—and let’s hope it occurs to the broadcasters and administrators who schedule our sporting entertainment: perhaps it matters more when we care about it. I’ll take the Rome derby on a laptop ahead of mid-table Eredivisie any day.