For me, sport churns up stories infused with these qualities year upon year, without even trying. It is a gloriously abundant well for storytellers. The obvious ones – Mohammed Ali’s career and social impact, Hillsborough or the tragedies attached to Munich (Manchester United’s awful plane crash and the killings at the 1972 Olympics). But then there are the smaller, more personal stories that hold a dear interest – that shine a light upon the varying levels of genius and frailty existent in the world.
Watching someone produce a display of talent and ingenuity under the closest scrutiny or fall victim to moments of weakness and failure whilst under that very same glare.
Football, you might be forgiven after recent events, had decided to adopt the WWE (as it’s now called) route. Abandoning all sense of reality, perspective and morality the sport that is watched and played by literally billions of people across the world seems to have decided that, much like wrestling, the tournament format, the grass based arenas and the dividing of its combatants into differing sides is all merely a set-up for the playing out of ludicrous soap opera style storylines based on but not really bearing any relation to globally trending subject matter (to use a Twitter term). You’d be forgiven for expecting to see an announcement after Match of the Day asking if you’d been affected by any of the issues shown in the programme, with a helpline to call. Racism, assault, corruption, infidelity and other matters are brought to bear as former players and commentators spend time analysing body language, speculating whether one over paid prima donna will shake the hand of another over paid prima donna whilst at the same time wondering who should take charge of the national team, an issue that is, it would seem, more important than anything that might be happening in Syria or Iran or Greece at the moment and a job that must, absolutely must be taken on by someone from these fair Isles.
It’s been going on for years of course. The results frequently seem to become incidental to the ‘major talking points’ – among which have been the questionable fitness or judgement of a referee, tackles or acts of deceit from players or managers and even once upon a time, a food fight.
Last night, the 12th February 2012, in Libreville the capital of Gabon, Zambia won the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament. If this is an incidental footnote to events currently going on in the world then so be it – but consider this:
In 1993, the plane carrying the Zambian national team to a World Cup qualifier with Senegal crashed into the sea off the coast of Libreville, Gabon, all 30 members of the playing and coaching staff perishing in the accident. It was a tragedy that was met with an outpouring of national grief in the country. Football in African nations such as Zambia is an integral fibre in its modern culture and often a unifying totem for the citizens. That it decimated a generation of its finest players is another thing altogether. Zambia were minnows in this competition, a team not expected to win against the might of other more established African nations (in football terms). They met the Ivory Coast in the final, a team packed with star names from the big leagues of the world. A team expected by all to win and win well.
The match went to penalties, the Hollywood ending to any football match. Unfortunately, the Hollywood ending doesn’t always win out in reality. For Zambia, and for the sake of a proper feel good story in a river of nonsensical plotlines, it did.