Sport has become much more than a way of life

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The Independent Online
IT HAS been something of a mixed week for John Brooke. The British oil worker was freed by his Yemeni captors on Wednesday, only to hear that his team, Norwich City, had lost 3-2 to Crewe Alexandra. Oh well. Into every life a little rain must fall.

According to Brooke's wife, news of last Saturday's match at Gresty Road was his first request when he phoned her after his release. Can you believe all this? Of course you can. It is just another confirmation of the beauty of the alternative world we call sport.

Brooke was clearly insouciant in the face of adversity - his first response on meeting the British Ambassador was to apologise for not wearing a suit - but there is something other than flippancy in his attitude.

When Michael Caine, playing secret agent Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File, emerges blinking from what he believes to be an Albanian prison, the first thing he sees - very large, very red, and very noisy - is a London Transport bus. It confirms he has returned to a safe, known world. Sport can perform the same function as Palmer's bus. Wherever in the world you are, or believe yourself to be, it is home.

Hugh McIlvanney, now of the Sunday Times, once memorably described sport as "a magnificent irrelevance". He is right. For all its fascinations, sport is not life and death, food and drink. And yet it can be so much more than fun and games.

Soon after I started covering my local cricket team as a trainee reporter I was introduced to one of their most fervent followers, Joe Natley. Joe, a widower who was well into his 80s at that time, acted as the official club scorer, peering out at the action from a little wooden hut opposite Cricketfield Lane's main pavilion.

One day his young assistant went missing and he prevailed upon me to help out with the scoreboard. As I went up and down the ladder to flip round the number displays, he sat with his thick scorebook in front of him, marking in the dot balls, the boundaries, the maidens, with his specially sharpened pencil. Happy in his work.

Years later I would see him in town in his hat and scarf. He would lay a huge, heavy hand on my shoulder and speak - with spittle darkening his grey raincoat - of sport. Always of sport.

He would recall his finest hour, when he took his scorecard to Lord's the year Bishop's Stortford reached the national club final. And inevitably, he would mutter darkly about the slow-scoring batsman whose stubborn stay at the wicket, in his judgement, had cost Stortford the game.

Who knows how much sport meant to Joe Natley? Who knows how big a factor it was in keeping him alive and alert into old age? No one for sure. But I am certain he wouldn't have been the same man without its comforts.

A recent report claimed that the golden logo of the McDonald's food chain was more readily recognised around the world even than the Christian cross.

If that is so, then the burger business has finally achieved something sport has long been able to do.

It used to be the case that the two most useful words available to an Englishman lost in a foreign land were "Bobby" and "Charlton." Put the phrase together, preferably but not necessarily in the right order, and it ignited smiles of recognition, waves of warmth, the world over.

Nowadays, perhaps, it would be sensible to have the words "Michael" and "Owen" on standby for younger strangers. But the principle remains.

Last September, at the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, 80,000 people in the Bukit Jalil stadium stared up at a huge screen linking them live to another mighty gathering outside the Town Hall of Manchester, the city which will host the 2002 Games.

As New Order crashed through the opening bars of "Wait Until Tomorrow", the sunlit midday crowd in Manchester produced a huge roar of approval which arrived in the stadium like a wave and then rolled around the darkened arena again as the inhabitants took it up.

Sure, it was a set-up job. But in that moment there was a true, spine- tingling communication from one side of the world to the other - and all in the cause of the Games.

Perhaps the most poignant illustration of sporting unison concerned the behaviour of British and German troops during the brief, unofficial truce of Christmas 1914, as they ventured into no man's land to sing songs - and play football.

Sport is a land and a language in common; home for many millions more than John Brooke.