Oh joy] They've lost again

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The Independent Online
IT'S been a wonderful week for football. First Arsenal lost 4-2 to Norwich, conceding all four goals in the last 20 minutes, and Manchester United lost 2-1 to Sheffield United. Then, on Tuesday, Blackburn Rovers beat Arsenal 1-0, and the following day Everton beat Manchester United 3-0. On Wednesday evening United and Arsenal were bottom of the Premier League, marginally below Wimbledon on goal difference.

It can't last, of course, so any street parties you may be arranging to celebrate the forthcoming relegation of these two great clubs could yet be premature. No doubt both teams will recover to mid-table respectability by the end of the season, and we'll have to suffer the dismal disappointment of seeing all the usual no-hopers fighting to stave off the giant plunge to the First Division (sounds odd that, doesn't it?).

But what joy these results have spread across the nation. At a party I was at on Wednesday, the announcement of the Manchester United result was greeted by a huge spontaneous cheer. Strangers greeted each other like long-lost friends, and at least one embryonic relationship was kick-started by the general air of joie de vivre.

Later on, as I was going home, I was almost overwhelmed by the sight of happy smiling crowds, laughing, joshing, spilling into the streets, unable to contain their happiness. If there's a sudden surge in the birth rate in nine months' time, I won't be in the least surprised.

Even Arsenal and Manchester United fans had something to cheer about. Arsenal fans, after all, have had the consolation of Manchester United's defeats, and United's fans the consolation of Arsenal's. No other clubs inspire such strong reactions, but then that's what you get when you're as smug and pleased with yourselves as these two. At Highbury this week, even the cardboard fans were silent.

But then delight in the failure of others has always been a vital element of all sporting endeavour. Anyone who plays sport knows of the simple, uncomplicated merriment that always ensues when, for example, someone is hit slap bang in the lunchbox. As the injured party writhes on the ground, screaming with agony, all of his friends and team-mates collapse into helpless laughter, and even the stretcher-bearers allow themselves a wry grin. His chances of siring a large family may just have been reduced by 98 per cent, but no-one really cares. Such is the glorious tradition of sporting Schadenfreude: we never forget to kick a man when he's down.

Who, for example, can have failed to chortle when Sergei Bubka, millionaire pole-vaulter and the hottest favourite for an Olympic title since Britain won the cricket gold medal in 1900, failed to get over the bar at any height in Barcelona and was summarily knocked out? And only this week, cricket fans have been rubbing their hands with glee as Australia struggled against a modest Sri Lankan team. After every commentator in the world had droned on about the fearsomeness of the Aussie pace attack, Gurusinha, Ranatunga and Kaluvitharne (on his debut) scored 137, 127 and 132 respectively in the First Test in Colombo. My, how we laughed.

Football, though, is the spiritual home of Schadenfreude. Few people since Winston Churchill have had the power to unite us as a nation, but Diego Maradona certainly managed it. When the Hand of God succumbed to a drugs test last year, flags and bunting were displayed outside every home, and although many people publicly expressed their regret over the waste of such a great footballing talent, we all had a good laugh about it in the pub afterwards.

And what about Gazza? No sportsman's travails can ever have generated so much amusement or derision. The goofy grin, the Brut advertisements, the terrible pop records: all merely prepared the way for his display in the 1991 FA Cup Final. No-one vill ever take him seriously again.

And so, as George Graham and Alex Ferguson try and work out what has gone wrong, they should spare a thought for all the people they have cheered up this past week. Winning would merely have made a few thousands happy, losing has pleased millions. It takes talent to give such joy to so many people. Let's just hope against hope that they can keep it up.