I’ve always enjoyed sport – along with literature and film it’s always been in there, pricking at my psyche. I know some of my friends who immerse themselves into the creative arts cannot see the attraction of sport – particularly football – cannot relate to the emotional impact it can generate on a person.Personally, I see sport and the arts as perfectly suited bedfellows. Both seem to be controlled reflections of the wider world, both require a certain application to co-exist with a basic talent and both offer outlets to the self. Also, as someone who loves and immerses oneself into a good story, I find that sport is a generator of some of the great stories of human existence.
What do we want from our stories? Character? Most certainly. We look for characters to develop, to reach some epiphany, to react to stresses and dramas. We look for characters in our stories to have their flaws exposed lest they reflect the flawed nature of the human condition for us all.Plot? Every story requires some plot, some narrative arc with which we can be carried along. It need not be intricate so long as it’s well told but some plot, some spine with which to hang your story is generally required to hold onto your attention.
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.
She leads you upstairs, points you to a chair near the window.
Won’t be long, she says. You smile, nod – say ok, whatever, no rush. Your palms are sweaty but you don’t feel nervous, why should you? Not like you haven’t been through it all before.
There was that time, as a kid, you remember, feel it coming back. In the old surgery, with the old dentist who smelled faintly of tobacco and always listened to Steve Wright in the Afternoon. You needed a filling, came in with mum after school; it was already nearly dark, the fine misty rain that dad always insisted got you wetter than the usual drizzle. He was probably right, your trousers were sticking to your legs, itchy and scratchy. Your socks damp around the toes. You hated damp socks – still do. You saw the needle, Steve Wright was telling another true story, the dentist told you to lie back, open your mouth. You panicked, bolted, made for the door. Mum lunged, grabbed your arm. It’s okay, she said. I’m not going to hurt you, he said. Hello, said Sid the Manager, when he meant to say Goodbye.
Later, you had sweets.
Mr Hill? It’s time.
The dentist, a woman in her forties, sits on a stool, peers over her glasses at a computer that has an x-ray of your mouth on the screen. She looks up as you enter the room, smiles and asks of your well-being. I’m fine, you tell her. Really, you are. You sit down as the dental nurse prepares a paper bib to tie around your neck, to protect your clothes from the blood and spit that will surely follow. She ties it around your neck, hands you some plastic glasses to put on.
So, she says, we’re going to dig out the decay in that tooth of yours and pop a cap on that’ll be there until we can get a crown for it. Pop a cap? That’s slang for shooting someone isn’t it? Maybe she didn’t say that.
You sit down, lean back against the seat, it’s comfier than you recall. Ken Bruce on the radio but you’ve missed Popmaster. Once, in a check up you called out an answer on Popmaster by accident; shouted Take On Me by Aha as the hygienist scraped plaque and nearly pierced your tongue. You’ve been prone to this all your life of course, inadvertently voicing that which was meant for internal monologue. Like the time you shouted yes at the television screen when Richard Prior asked a crowd of people if they wanted lunch in the film Brewster’s Millions.
You lie back as the seat reclines, staring up at the lamp, glowing above you ominously, as though looking back at you. A light with personality and sinister intent – it occurs to you that it looks like those alien thingys on War of the Worlds. It’s not a reassuring thought. The light is blocked by the appearance of two heads, two female women[sic] looking down upon you, gazing into the cavernous void of your mouth. You cleaned your teeth before coming, it seemed the courteous thing to do. But now you worry you’ve missed a rogue cornflake clinging to a molar at the back. The dental nurse, only young and really quite blonde is wearing what appears to be a Perspex welders mask. What the hell have they got planned? You try not to think of Saw or Hostel or Little Shop of Horrors or, eek, Marathon Man. The omens are not good, you were listening to an interview about Laurence Olivier only yesterday.
The dentist prods around in your mouth with the little magnifying glass and the pointy thing as you try not to look at either of the two women looking down at you, try to focus on the light and on Ken Bruce, who seems to be talking to someone – possibly Jeremy Vine. You’ve never really been a big fan of Jeremy Vine – he’s never really filled the shoes of Jimmy Young and he’s really only the second best presenter of Eggheads behind Dermot. Jimmy Young, always reminds you of your nan, listening in the kitchen, the waft of lamb stew drifting from the bubbling vat on the stove as Young debated about the miners strike or abortion in between playing Buddy Holly or the Everley Brothers, while you wanted to watch Rainbow on the telly.
The dentist puts what appears to be a block of plasticine into your mouth. It tastes minty, a bit like toothpaste. You were always a Colgate child but moved to Aquafresh as a student. Now it’s whatever’s on offer, although it’s rarely Crest. Do they still sell Gibbs SR?
It’s injection time. You see the needle out of the corner of your eye. It looks enormous, big enough to tranquilise an elephant. You brace yourself, hold the fingers of your left hand in the grip of your right. Be brave, you don’t want to wimp it now. There are ladies present. What the hell does that mean, anyway? It’s no time to go all 1950’s. Here it comes.
A sting and a throb deep inside your jaw and then nothing. A wait. The dentist makes a show of doing something on the computer but you get the impression she’s just killing time, waiting for the anaesthetic to kick in. You talk about Christmas, about the stupid people who’ve already got decorations up; about impending parties and festive shindigs. But talking is becoming tricky as you start to lose all feeling in the left side of your head, a prod of the cheek – rubbery and numb, like poking a balloon. You worry you might be dribbling without realising it. Time to crack on.
The dentist leans over you again, her face low, close to yours, her eyes fixed on whatever horrors lay within your trap. The nurse leans in, pops the plastic suction tube in that briefly sticks to your tongue. Noises all around, you close your eyes. The slurp of the suction device, a dog’s bark (he used to be worse, apparently), the faint Scottish burr of Ken Bruce and the drill. Like Beechers Brook in the Grand National, the drill is the big bad daddy of the dentistry implements. It should come with its own theme music, like Darth Vader or Jaws, a chilling score to announce its arrival, the low descent to dental destruction. It whirs with a shrill, evil high pitch that grows higher as it encounters resistance against the enamel. Although painless you wince anyway, it seems appropriate. Your eyes flutter and close and you wonder whether it would be possible to go to sleep like this. Just nod off and wake when it’s all over.
There’s a fair bit of decay in there, she says, surely not expecting a response. Decay, the word makes you feel guilty even though you know you look after your teeth. You just know you do. Decay – you’ve allowed one of your teeth to decay you irresponsible, reckless bastard. Too many Wham! bars as a child. They still sell Wham! bars but they’re not the same – not as potent. Back in the day they were so chewy you could lose a tooth in the battle to bite a chunk and the green bits inside – wow, like biting into a landmine.
Instruments and gadgets, something that looked like ironing tongs and a couple of things that went beep. Minutes pass slowly, your mouth tiring of being kept prised open, throat dry from the suction tube.
All done, she says, the seat returning to its upright state, bringing you up with it. Have a rinse out, she says. You take the plastic cup, put it where you think your mouth ought to be, pour some mouthwash in, some dribbles out, along your chin and onto the paper bib. Somewhere inside your head there is an itch but you’re too numb to locate it. You notice that Jeremy Vine is talking on the radio, Ken Bruce long since finished. Your cue to leave.
It’s three hours before your mouth returns to life, the sudden, joyous realisation that you can feel again, that your tongue and your voice both work again. That you can chance a cup of tea without threat that you might miss and scold your ears. You have to go back after Christmas – have the permanent crown fixed. But that’s okay – time’s have changed. There’s no dread anymore, no threat of making a break for it. You’ve moved on, grown up. Everything’s different.
You sit back and listen to Steve Wright in the Afternoon. It’s another true story.