The helmets-for-goalposts kickarounds of Der Kleine Frieden – the ‘little peace’ that broke out along the Western Front on Christmas Day 1914 – have been well-documented, and represent perhaps the best-known examples of sport played in the greatest extremity. Less celebrated, though, is a game – or, rather, a series of games – that took place in an even less hospitable environment three years earlier. These games were conducted at -20°C, in winds of up to 30mph; to glance at the opposing line-ups gives a fresh meaning to the term ‘journeymen footballers’. These were the games played by the crew of the Terra Nova at Cape Evans, Antarctica, in the autumn of 1911: wearing the skipper’s armband for one side was Captain Robert Falcon Scott.
The members of Scott’s ill-fated last expedition were keen to take exercise whenever they could, and football was a popular pastime. To picture these men hoofing the ball around the ice-sheets is to conjure an image familiar from Sunday morning park pitches, complete with the usual personnel: the enforcer (hard-as-nails Irish seaman Tom Crean bore a passing resemblance to late-period Roy Keane), the ringer (skiing ace Tryggve Gran had played for the Norwegian international side) and the quavering rookie (young Russian pony-groom Anton Omelchenko had never even seen a football before arriving at Cape Evans).
But there is surely more to our appreciation of these knockabouts on the edge of hell than home-from-home sentimentality. The story of the Terra Nova expedition is a story of heroes, and, particularly, of an ensemble heroism that will be fondly familiar to the British sports fan.
British sporting culture has had its individuals, of course, from Shackleton to Boycott, from ’Enry to Henman, but precious few of these have won over the British public as completely as have the country’s greatest sporting teams. Why? Is it simply that these ensembles – the thirteen of Sydney 2003, say, or Ramsey’s 1966 eleven – offer something for everyone (allergic to Botham? Try a Brearley...)?
I prefer to think, instead, that we appreciate these motley crews not because they have something to offer everyone, but because every one of them has something to offer. This may be why, for instance, the identikit beanpoles of basketball – or, for that matter, what Nick Hornby has called the ‘interchangeable physiques’ of our present-day Premiership ‘elite’ – fail to entirely charm the majority of British sports fans; why we’re more comfortable throwing in our lots with the ill-assorted likes of a European Ryder Cup outfit or a medley of touring Baa-baa mavericks.
This affection for the ragtag mob, with all its varieties of appearance, class, age, race and size, can certainly be found in the Antarctic histories. It can be found, too, in the clichés of the sports pages, and at any number of points in between, from the Beano’s Bash Street Kids to The Great Escape. Sports fans have a tendency to succumb easily, it’s true, to the cult of the individual, the icon, The Greatest, The Special One. But surely our enthusiasm for the team – the place where even an oddball can find an oddball-shaped hole – says more about the importance of individuality than such hero-worship ever could.