It's odd that almost all the English fantasies of imperialism, from The Tempest to A Passage to India, are about giving up empire. In sport, in particular, there isn't that sense that if you don't win, you might as well not have bothered turning up. No German thinks for a moment of anything but taking the first place, and has no notion that some measure of the pride that may be rescued from coming second.
Of course, the English want to win, but they take an almost equal pride when they lose, and adversity reveals their strength of character. The abuse heaped on David Beckham when he lost the World Cup for England was for a personal failure; he turned out not to be a stoic, and, for once, you could not claim that here was an honourable English failure. So when, once in a while, the English do in fact win, it's quite an interesting spectacle, as they struggle to find some Teutonic triumphalism. I can't help thinking that Manchester United's win over Bayern Munchen on Wednesday was really the perfect way for the English to win anything. Everyone hates Manchester United because they keep winning football matches. All that invincible winning, as boring as Book Five of The Faerie Queene, is somehow un-English, and it's not surprising that they are both loathed here and passionately supported abroad. I was on a camel in the Sahara a month or so ago, looking at the sun setting over the dunes, when the drover suddenly ruined the TE Lawrence moment by asking me whether I lived in Manchester, and if I knew David Beckham or Ryan Giggs.
If they absolutely have to win, however, this was not a bad way for them to do so. There was something deeply silly about the course of the match. It was something which you could read in a number of ways, all of which were really rather gratifying to the English sense of themselves. The boring way to have won would have been the Bavarian option, to score in the first five minutes and then hang on humourlessly for another hour and a half. As it was, the match turned out to be gratifyingly like a proper story, with irony and characterisation, and a beautifully planned twist in the tail.
You can't always read a football match as a narrative, but this was a perfect short story. Better than Roy of the Rovers, it had something of the quality of O Henry, with its faint, amused sadism, and a climax that was both unforeseen and beautifully inevitable. It appealed to the English sly wit, and confirmed a secret sense that this had been planned all along, that the manager's game plan had always been to kick a ball around for an hour and a half before glancing at the clock and scoring a couple of goals in the last minute.
Satisfying, too, all those little ironies of character. It was a final present for Peter Schmeichel; it represented a powerful redemption of two of the villains of the last world cup, David Beckham and Teddy Sheringham. Sometimes you watch a game of football, and, following the detail, are nevertheless unable to construe a narrative as it grinds towards a 0-0 final score. This was a proper story, and a story that followed one of the favourite fantasies of the English, one which resoundingly confirmed what we believe about ourselves: that we could win if we could be bothered; that when it matters, we usually do win.
Sport seems trivial, and usually it is trivial. But one of its most useful functions is the way it offers a nation a reflection of itself. Winning a European cup is a cheaper and simpler way to make people feel good about themselves than winning a European war; Germans don't make a distinction, and call both Weltmeisterschaft, but we know better than that. And I must say that even someone like me, mildly interested in football but no more, got a little kick out of Manchester United's hilarious victory. Things like this give us a good feeling about who we are; not quite proud, but, at any rate, amused to be English.
I was watching the match at home; my football-mad neighbours next door were having a conspicuous party, their responses filtering through the wall from time to time. They had been pretty silent through the second half, until Teddy Sheringham scored, and the most almighty din broke out. It had hardly died down when the second goal went in, and then you could hear the most characteristic of English noises; not cheering, or yelling, but simply a roomful of people giggling uncontrollably. Not a bad night, on the whole.Reuse content