If flags and fists fly, sport loses out

IAN COLLINS It was clear from an early age that I wasn't cut out for sport in general and team sports in particular. Too much like hard work and mass hysteria. Too much like warfare by another name.


It was clear from an early age that I wasn't cut out for sport in general and team sports in particular. Too much like hard work and mass hysteria. Too much like warfare by another name.

In so far as I could raise any interest in the winning and the losing, it seemed - and seems - to me less admirable to win badly than to lose well.

The point is supposed to be about participation in an act of playful relaxation. It's not a matter of triumph or humiliation, still less of life and death. Neither Wayne's Foot nor Michael's Knee is the stuff of tragedy.

To be truthful, the taking part didn't really appeal to me either. If an object as lethal as a cricket ball is coming towards you at high speed, the only sane response is surely to duck or dive. Butterfingers beats broken fingers.

At my school there were heroic/idiotic attempts to teach us the wonders of rugby. This produced my first leading role in an act of mass civil disobedience.

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When the sports pitch was suddenly engulfed in a blanket of fenland fog, I turned on my heels and headed for the woods. Unfortunately, the rest of two reluctant teams then followed.

I can still hear the macho tones of the sports master rising to a shrill falsetto as he cried: “Lads! Lads! COME BACK! COME BAARRGGHH!”

Many detention sessions later, my school report correctly noted that I was a sadly disruptive influence to the team spirit. No fun in games for me.

Cross-country running in winter used to make me very cross indeed. After the second lap of indescribable tedium, my mates and I would pause for a fag break in those handy woods. Once, we badly misjudged our re-entry into the race and two of us got picked for the county championships.

I fell in love with all the girls in our fifth-form when, adopting fancy dress for their enforced role in a cross-country contest, they walked the course before joining hands to jump over the finishing line together. So the team spirit was being instilled in us after all.

I've always been a swimmer, walker and cyclist. I love any sort of dancing save the line variety. I enjoy tennis and ding-dong sessions of ping-pong, pub darts and snooker.

But I remain baffled by most spectator sports. Although I like to see cricket being played on village greens I don't actually want to watch it.

We take our personalities into sport with us, which is why English football is now so grubby, graceless and greedy. It's all about money - and, in our national squad, about multi-millionaire celebrities who deign to appear. They no longer delight in their skill, let alone strive to entertain us.

If you want to see the beautiful game - the flair and the sheer exuberance - then look abroad.

I was walking in lovely Spitalfields on a recent Saturday evening when a crowd of boozed-up soccer fan(atic)s turned into the street, bringing with them a wave of animal aggression.

Full of fury, they proceeded to kick doors and ring bells in a senseless act of disruption (and desolation). Hours later they could so easily have been putting the boot into heads.

In Portugal I came across another gang of drunken football fans, and was instantly braced for trouble. But they were just merry - no violence there whatsoever.

Our flag-flying - and chairs and glasses and fists flying - surge of chauvinistic patriotism makes me feel as queasy as it did during the Falklands War. Whereas that conflict was the result of an own goal, our current World Cup performance is a kind of extended professional (and private) foul.

I'm afraid I just hope that unthrilling and unsporting England is ejected from the World Cup as quickly as possible, with minimal added damage to our already-dismal national reputation.

Meanwhile, my friend in Berlin - as allergic to football as I am - is cheering for Brazil, after being impressed by an incoming surge of joyous, creative and life-affirming Latino spirit.

Brazil's culture minister, a very popular singer, gave a concert in the German capital to launch his country's sporting campaign. Such fabulous style.

Just imagine the wretched Tessa Jowell displaying her own cultural interests and talents in a similar vein.

Presumably she would treat us to a demonstration of synchronised mortgage applications in a super casino or an all-night bar. Smashing.

I'd sooner watch working class hero John Prescott playing the people's sport of croquet.