Frank Bascombe, the hero of Richard Ford's masterly 1986 novel The Sportswriter, muses of his working life that "much of my sportswriter's work is exactly what you would think...arriving and departing airports, checking in to and out of downtown hotels, late-night drinks in unfamiliar bars... but there is also an assurance to it that I don't suppose I could live happily without".
I'm not sure I'm with Frank on that one. I don't travel quite as much as he does, maybe that's why, but I could live very happily without the assurance of late-night drinks in unfamiliar bars, which don't hold much appeal when you're on your own. It helps, though, if there's a big football match being televised. When there's a screen to gaze at, you're no longer a Billy No-mates. You're not alone supping your Pinot Grigio and reaching for the salted peanuts, you're with Jeff Stelling or Adrian Chiles. Even if you can't hear what they're saying, because the barman's gone and pressed the mute button.
On Tuesday night, I watched Schalke v Manchester United in the bar at the Sofitel hotel at Heathrow Airport, and on Wednesday I watched Real Madrid v Barcelona in the bar at the Radisson at Lisbon Airport. At least the Radisson provided sound. At the Sofitel it was turned right down, I suppose in consideration of the three people in the bar who weren't the slightest bit interested in the footie. I counted 15 of us who were, all middle-aged men, and all on our own. It was an odd experience, made odder by the lack of volume, because we all kept our eyes on the screen at half-time, and unless my fellow viewers were at Heathrow for a lip-reading convention, they had no more clue than I did what Stelling and Jamie Redknapp were saying. Even more oddly, we all leant forward in our seats when Sir Alex Ferguson popped up on screen, finding his silence that little bit more compelling than Redknapp's.
In Lisbon, I reached the hotel bar about five minutes into the match. Hurrying through the lobby, I could see about 30 people, again all male, and mostly on their own, all gazing reverentially upwards, as if a messiah were arriving, which in a sense one was. Messi, ah! That second goal was truly a thing of beauty, reminiscent of his countryman Diego Maradona's second goal against England in 1986, but not besmirched by the first.
Also enraptured by the screen were half a dozen waiters and, it seemed, every occupant of a large tropical fish tank. There was one with huge goggle eyes, puffed-out gills and a slack mouth, and coincidentally a fish that looked very much like him. The goggle-eyed waiter took my order without ever removing his gaze from the football. Like practically everyone else in the bar he was rooting for Real Madrid, I presumed because of the Cristiano Ronaldo connection.
As for the sound, it was scarcely more use to me than the lack of it at Heathrow, because I speak no Portuguese. I was interested, however, in the conventions of Champions League coverage on Portuguese telly. The Stelling-Chiles equivalent is a fellow called Miguel Prates, but he sits in the studio on his own, pundit-less, doing his own match analysis at half-time and also plugging forthcoming fixtures, such as Vitoria Setubal v FC Porto, but, much more enthusiastically, "Chelsea-Tottenham este sabado".
Even in Portugal, even with Real Madrid against Barcelona on the box, and with three Portuguese teams due to contest Europa League semi-finals the following evening, English football appeared to whet the appetite more than any other brand. Or maybe that was just Miguel. Whatever, I ended up quite enjoying my hotel bar double-header, albeit mostly as an anthropomorphic study. For the second legs, I'm looking forward to the comfort of my own sofa, and Stelling and Chiles as loud as I choose. But there's always the possibility that, like Frank Bascombe, I'll be out on the road again, in another unfamiliar bar, wordlessly bonding with more unfamiliar men.
The Globetrotters are much more than mere clowns
On Monday night I went with my wife and three kids to watch the Harlem Globetrotters at Birmingham's National Indoor Arena. As we left, with my 12-year-old son zipping excitedly across the concourse bouncing his £20 Globetrotters basketball, for the most part managing to avoid all the other kids with their basketballs, I reflected on what a mightily curious phenomenon the Globetrotters are. Too often, their clowning evokes the kind of cheap circuses I was myself taken to as a child, with fart jokes and buckets that you're meant to duck from, thinking them full of water, only to find scraps of torn-up paper fluttering over your head. But interspersed with the nonsense are some of the most thrilling ball skills you're ever likely to see.
Beeb's Five Live missed a royal trick
A reader, Gary Flowers, emailed me on Tuesday, alerting me to Radio Five Live's feature on the sporting year of 1981, the year of the last big royal wedding. Mr Flowers, an Aston Villa fan, was dismayed by the lengthy item on Tottenham's FA Cup win, whereas Villa's 1981 league title was entirely overlooked. He considered this yet another example of the BBC's metropolitan bias, and he might be right. In Five Live's defence, I suppose that particular final looms larger in the collective memory than Villa's league title. And yet the production team plainly missed a trick, because their 1981 rewind was intended as an overture to yesterday's royal wedding, and the new Duke of Cambridge, as everyone in the Holte End knows, is a claret-and-blue blood.