Sensitivity wins as the big ball stops rolling

Confronted by horror sport needs to remember its role as frivolity and entertainment unlike the 1972 Olympics in Munich
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The Independent Online

The last time America and so much of the world was devastated, when the cornerstones of life seemed to have been torn away, they played a football game at Goodison Park before the shock waves had even begun to ebb.

The last time America and so much of the world was devastated, when the cornerstones of life seemed to have been torn away, they played a football game at Goodison Park before the shock waves had even begun to ebb.

It was less than 24 hours after the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963, a First Division game against forgotten opposition on a day of Merseyside cold that more than ever before or since seemed to go straight into the bones. There is only one memory of that ill-conceived afternoon of sport and it had nothing to do with the action. It is of an incident which came in the middle of a minute's silence for the fallen President. The deep hush was broken by a cry of "Long Live Kruschev''. The author of the shout had to be rescued by the police.

Last night Everton played Crystal Palace in a Worthington Cup tie and the question had to concern what, in all the circumstances, could rescue at this time even a hint of relevance for such a contest.

Certainly Uefa, European football's ruling body, was right to move quickly to postpone what on a different occasion would have been last night's glittering line-up of Champions' League ties, and also to stress that it was a decision based not on security fears but out of respect for the uncounted dead.

Sport, as we know well enough, is a workable metaphor for the best and the worst of life itself, and sometimes gloriously so, but in these days of the almighty hype, and the kind of exaggerated reaction which greeted England's recent triumph over Germany in Munich, it is perhaps more than ever necessary to draw a line.

Uefa did it swiftly and correctly yesterday. Tuesday's games went on when the world was still recoiling in shock and those at Anfield for Liverpool's 1-1 draw with the Portuguese champions Boavista spoke of an almost surreal atmosphere of detachment from the realities of a day which indeed may have changed the world. The low attendance was variously attributed to the uncelebrated status of Liverpool's opponents, to parochialism and the extra demands the match made on the pockets of Merseysiders. But it may also be true that some felt that on this day so besieged by images of destruction and tragedy that Bill Shankly's famous declaration that football was more important than life and death rang as emptily as a discarded lager can.

In the overturning of so many American certainties it is inevitable that doubts should be cast against the viability of the Ryder Cup golf match between America and Europe which is due to start at The Belfry in two weeks' time. You have to wonder if the pain and the dismay will have ebbed sufficiently to permit what, in recent years, has too often been an unfortunate expression of partisanship, especially on the American part. Indeed the emotional equilibrium of a brilliant but often fraught event will surely come under immense pressure, with the haunting possibility of a reminder of the unpleasant atmosphere that came to Kiawah Island in South Carolina in the wake of the Gulf War. Then, leading American players enthusiastically evoked both the imagery and the vocabulary of Desert Storm. It was tasteless then, it is unimaginable now.

Uefa's decision certainly reflects a degree of sensitivity to the mood of a wider world which was painfully absent in the Munich Olympics of 1972, when the International Olympic Committee chairman, Avery Brundage, a reclusive American plutocrat, insisted that the Games should proceed despite the slaughter of Israeli athletes and coaches by the Palestinian splinter group Black September. Brundage said the Games could not be stopped, they were beyond the pull of politics and even terrorist action. But, of course, they weren't, and when the Games closed, and a host of pretty balloons were sent into the sky, some would never again see sport as more than a self-indulgence to be consigned among the other flippancies of life.

This is not to relegate the power of sport as a powerful and valid agent of the human spirit and, certainly, you would find no lack of advocates of this belief in America. Indeed if you took the games of America away, the world's most pervasive culture would be denuded of some of its most reliable metaphors. The number of times President Bush's role was likened to that of an embattled quarterback as he skipped from Florida to Louisiana to Nebraska and then finally Washington on Tuesday is beyond calculation. He was in the position of a man required to throw the Hail Mary pass, the desperate resource of that quarterback required as never before to produce a big play.

When France's leading soldier Marshall Foch saw his first gridiron game in Philadelphia just after the first World War he exclaimed: " Mon dieu, this game has everything – it is like war.'' But of course, it is not, it is a game, a fabrication of the real thing and if any sports lover, American or otherwise, had any illusions about this they were surely wiped away in a New York minute.

The demarcation line of sport and real life can never have been so clearly drawn. For the champion of Wimbledon, Goran Ivanisevic, it is one that was never more blurred than during the agony of war in his native Croatia. As he attempted to win a gold medal for his emerging nation in the 1992 Olympics, he said: "My friends are dying for my country. They have rifles in their hands and I have a tennis racket. But they do tell me I can do good for Croatia, I can put it on the map."

Yesterday Uefa was faced with a rather less complex situation. It decided that respect had to be the most vital factor in its decision. So, in that light it is right that the big ball, at least in the big games, stopped rolling last night. Even at its best, it could have provided no more than a distraction. Uefa guessed rightly it was the wrong time to dwell on anything but reality.