Could I compare Southport's magic to Muhammad Ali's?

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The Independent Online
THE INVESTITURE of Muhammad Ali as the BBC's Sports Personality of the Century (BBC1, Sunday) was, perhaps, as inevitable as yesterday's revelation in The Independent that lucky, boring Arsenal are, statistically speaking, the most consistent team in English league football since 1900.

But it is germane, in the confines of this column, to wonder if Ali would have got the award for being the sports personality of the century on television. After a few seconds' consideration, it is easy to conclude that Ali wins that, too - after all, our shared history depends almost exclusively on TV. How many people saw Ali fight? I mean Ali himself, rather than an arrangement of electrons on a screen? Probably not much more than, say, half a million over his 61 contests. Earlier this week, Sugar Ray Robinson was voted ahead of Ali as the greatest boxer of the century. But in the small screen universe, Ali is without peer.

But more generally, what have been the TV highlights of the sporting century? There are as many answers as there are viewers. Any individual's mental sporting map will resemble that New Yorker depiction of the world, in which New Jersey is practically outside the solar system and the rest of the world barely exists. Hence a contender for my top 10 would be Southport's first appearance on Match of the Day, against Hereford in the early 1970s.

Perhaps the most strictly televisual sporting events are those which require the medium for illumination. The whole world saw Maradona's Hand of God in 1986 - at least, those of us watching the slow-motion replay. And had Geoff Hurst's second World Cup final goal been scored today, the only controversy would be how it could have been given in the first place. The Germans would have seen replays in post-match interviews and gone home knowing, rather than suspecting, that events had conspired against them.

And then there are sports that require an armchair view in order to make sense of them at all. Attending Formula One in person has its compensations - the noise, the atmosphere, the dolly birds - couch potatoes will have a clearer conception of the day's proceedings than anyone who was actually there.

But in the end, it is the thrill factor that counts. Without thinking too hard, this is my personal - and idiosyncratic - Top 10 TV Sporting Moments.

September 1966: Ali v Karl Mildenberger. The world heavyweight champion was making the sixth defence of his title, though I scarcely knew that at the time. I was an eight-year-old whose world had been lit up by an interview a couple of days earlier, and though I remember little about the fight itself, I can still recall the sense of magic.

May 1967: West Ham 1 Manchester United 6. The last weekend of the season. Primed by ancestral fanaticism, I watched the highlights of United's romp to the title. Life was, to coin a phrase, never the same again.

May 1968: Manchester United 4 Benfica 1 in the European Cup final, watched at my next-door neighbours. United had chosen me a year earlier, and this was my reward.

July 1970: The World Cup final, Brazil 4 Italy 1. This makes the Top 10 because, after all these years, I have still never seen it. A boy's heart was broken because he was in church being confirmed while the greatest match of all time was taking place. And people ask me why I lost my faith. It's in my Top 10 because I still feel the pain.

July 1980: That tie-break, Bjorn Borg v John McEnroe. This was one of those events that became intertwined with one's life in a most peculiar way. I watched the drama unfold during a party in Newcastle, and got talking to a couple of tennis fans in a way that resulted in some very naughty goings-on indeed. The titanic tennis duel and what happened after the party are as one in my mind...

June 1982: France v Germany in the World Cup semi- finals. I was already in love with France from four years earlier, and now my heart soared and plummeted as the filthy Hun somehow got back into the game. As Horst Hrubesch leapt into the air after scoring the winning penalty, it was like a death in the family.

1986: Belgium 4 Soviet Union 3. Valery Lobanovsky's exhilarating communist hordes had stolen my heart, and grief at their defeat was only slightly tempered by fabulous football.

July 1989: The final stage of the Tour de France, a time trial into the Champs-Elysees. Laurent Fignon was 50 seconds ahead of Greg LeMond when the day began. As he entered the final straight, the last man to ride, it suddenly became clear that the American was going to overhaul him. And he did, by eight seconds.

May 1999: Manchester United 2 Bayern 1 in the European Cup final. United's comeback constituted the most extreme two minutes of my life.

June 1999: Lance Armstrong, back from his death bed and taking the Tour de France by storm, settled the result with a champion's ride to Sestriere in the Alps. A new hero for me.

I still can't decide about Hereford v Southport, though.

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