Beauty is the burden of the beholder

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The Independent Online
TICKETS FOR big matches should carry a warning to the effect that possession of this prized and costly piece of card entitles the bearer to no more than a seat at the event. It carries no guarantee of an orgasmic sporting experience and neither is it a licence to be thrilled, amazed, gob-smacked or even mildly entertained.

Indeed, it might also suggest that a small amount of vocal animation from the holder would be preferable to just sitting there waiting to be transported to the gates of heaven as, I suspect, were a significant part of the crowd at last weekend's Rugby World Cup final at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.

This is not intended to excuse the final's lack of spectacle. Games don't need excuses. They just happen; created before our very eyes by an amalgam of forces some of which are less resistable than others. And since the priority of a match is to find a worthy winner and not the spectators' G-spot, that is all that should concern us.

Anti-climactic cup finals are by no means rare. In fact, it is becoming increasingly difficult to recall many FA Cup finals that stirred the blood. And American football's Super Bowl, the most colossal money-spinner of all, regularly falls flat on its face, excitement-wise. They should rename it the Lead Bowl.

But those let-downs don't seem to attract the flak that was flying around last weekend. Apart from being a discourtesy to a redoubtable Australian team - without doubt, the world's finest - complaints about the quality of the day revealed a level of expectation that was never justified. We can blame the brilliance of the French in the semi-final against New Zealand for much of the anticipation but the chances of them repeating the surprise of that performance were never high.

Fussed over by a referee who appeared to think the game had been arranged purely as part of his master's degree in officiousness, the final carried other burdens. Not the least of these was that this was the first final to be played in which the hosts were not represented. Australian and French fans were heavily outnumbered by neutrals.

But that shouldn't result in a lack of genuine interest in the outcome. It might have lacked superficial sparkle but there was a lot of rugby going on out there. The extinguishing of the French fire didn't occur naturally and there was much to praise about the Australian performance, no matter how defensively based it was. Tim Horan's Man of the Tournament performance crowned one of sport's most remarkable comebacks from serious injury and alone was worth the study. But you needed to be aware of the background.

Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the allure of a game depends to a great extent upon the willingness of those beholding it. Supporters of either side will have no trouble finding a focus for their rapt attention.

The unaligned have to work much harder to get full value from their observations.

The easiest way is to have a bet on the outcome. The bigger the bet the more riveted the gaze. Those not blessed with either a natural connection to one of the teams or a wagering one ought to be aware that they will find it more difficult to warm to the occasion. They may even have to answer the question of what the bloody hell they're doing there, any how.

It is a question that could have fairly been put to a large proportion of those in the Millennium Stadium, and too many would have answered that they had been drawn by the social importance of the occasion. We have no way of knowing how many corporate hospitality recipients were present. Many of my friends returned with stories of being surrounded by Englishmen trying to explain what was happening to their wives. I have to say that the explanations brought more pleasure to my friends than large parts of the game.

This is a fact of life that has long been commonplace in sport and is undoubtedly becoming more of an irritant. Who are we to begrudge the presence of an astute commercial lion who has just ordered 200,000 left-hand sproggets from a manufacturer who happened to have best seats for the game, first- class rail tickets and lunch at one of Cardiff's swankiest restaurants?

There are many other reasons why there are too many amateur spectators in sport these days (I use the word amateur in the derogatory sense, just like there are too many amateur drinkers clogging the pubs at Christmas time) and there is a considerable downside to the development.

Oddly enough, the lack of genuine atmosphere last week was apparent only in the stadium. The streets of central Cardiff were jumping with fervour and excitement. I happened to be in one of the largest pubs for research purposes before the game and the singing was terrific. The repertoire included "Waltzing Matilda", the "Marseillaise" and "Flower of Scotland" as well as the usual Welsh offerings, and the atmosphere was much better than that in the stadium. Perhaps none of them had tickets.

Maybe the mood had been set by the continual rubbishing of the tournament in the media. There was much to rubbish but too many peripheral voices found it fashionable to join in without even coming near the event. The inquest will drag on for a while yet but as far as the final was concerned it had a raw deal.

At the time of writing, I don't know how the footballers of England and Scotland fared yesterday, but there would have been no lack of rousing power. Every heart in Hampden Park would have pounding with partisan feeling. What a contrast with the Rugby World Cup final. Some crowds are too heavy for any game to lift.

AT LEAST the controversy over Manchester United being allowed to abandon this season's FA Cup in favour of a financially juicy jaunt to Brazil in January was conducted in a serious manner. This is not surprising when you consider the sombre implications of the world's oldest competition being devalued in this way.

Now, however, an element of farce has been introduced into the sad affair with the news that United's absence is to result in a new manifestation of commercial crassness.

In order to make up the numbers for the third round, one of the teams defeated in the second round will be given another chance.

The sponsors, Axa, have come up with the wheeze of creating the "Axa Wildcard" which will be awarded to one of the losers. You can imagine what it will be like. A prime television slot, a glitzy Lottery-style set complete with dancing girls and a top presenter and all the names of the losers in a drum waiting for a lucky one to be picked out.

The opinion that the whole idea stinks in no way reflects a lack of sympathy for Axa, who put up their sponsorship in good faith. If I was them, I would have found a get-out clause and run like hell for the door. But this is not the answer and I am appalled that the Football Association have gone along with it.

But, given the major part they have played thus far in this sorry saga, I am not surprised. It should not have to be pointed out to them that the FA Cup is the great-great-grandfather of all knockouts. The origin of the sporting sudden death. Resurrection has never been part of it and never should be.

The problem of one missing club in the third-round draw is actually easily solved. Manchester United's name should go into the draw as normal - this gives them a last- minute option to change their minds - and the team drawn against them should turn up on the appointed day and have the tie awarded to them when their opponents do not appear.

This betrayal of a sacred event cannot be rubbed in hard enough. As for this daft idea; axe it, Axa.