Brian Viner: War is best left out of sport – even when some say it's a matter of life and death

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

Most of us have heard about the British and German soldiers in the First World War trenches, who declared an unofficial truce on Christmas Day 1914 and met in no-man's land for a game of football.

The last known survivor of that famous kickabout, Bertie Felstead, died as recently as 2001, aged 106, and one wonders what he thought of military images being used to inspire modern sportsmen to greater deeds with clubs, bats and balls. For him and his fellow Tommies, sport was the welcome antithesis of war.

The latest man to bring guns and bombs into the sporting arena is the American Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin, who at Celtic Manor on Tuesday evening introduced Major Dan Rooney, an F16 fighter pilot, to his troops, as he evidently likes to think of them. Major Rooney, not thought to be even distantly related to Wayne, talked to the US team about the kind of accountability, the importance of watching your comrade's back, that he has experienced in combat and that they would need on the golf course once, erm, hostilities began.

His stirring address reportedly had a profound effect on the rookie Bubba Watson, whose father is a Vietnam veteran. "I am more than likely never going to be in the military ... so this is a chance to be like my dad," Watson said. Someone should take him quietly to one side and explain the differences between the Tet Offensive and the Saturday foursomes.

It beggars belief that Pavin, the feisty little so-and-so whose Desert Storm combat cap was one of the main reasons for the ill-tempered 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island being dubbed "The War on the Shore", should again conflate militarism and sport. But before we get too sanctimonious, we should recall the England cricket team's "bonding" trip to the war graves in Flanders shortly before last year's Ashes. It is best remembered for the hoo-ha over Andrew Flintoff missing the team bus and arriving later, somewhat defeating the object of the exercise, which was clearly to gee up our boys with some hard evidence of the sacrifices made on their behalf. Steve Waugh did something similar before the 2001 Ashes, taking his team to Gallipoli to recreate a 1915 photograph of a group of Anzacs playing a carefree game of cricket.

As with the no-man's land footballers, those Aussie soldiers were able to use sport to forget about war, however fleetingly. In Iraq and Afghanistan I imagine that's still the role of sport. But the rest of us hardly get a chance to disassociate the two, not merely because of gung-ho characters like Pavin and the aptly-named Waugh, but because military metaphors are central to the very vocabulary of sport. We all talk about battles and fightbacks, about counter-attacks and rearguard actions, about wars of attrition and do-or-die heroics. Rugby union pundits in particular are fond of describing this or that player as a fellow "you'd like next to you in the trenches" and indeed Clive Woodward, prior to the 2003 World Cup, took his players training with the Royal Marines.

Whether or not England would have won that World Cup without getting sweaty with the Marines, I can see that in some circumstances it might be productive to kid sportsmen – even golfers, who in the line of duty are unlikely to sustain an injury worse than a nasty blister, or a bit of chafing between the thighs – that they are on the front line. But flying in a fighter pilot? Rather like those Tommies, it's all gone over the top.

My gift for a man who has everything

My admission in these pages on Thursday that I took a gift for the Duke of Edinburgh when I interviewed him six months ago about his sporting life unleashed all kinds of abuse in the blogosphere, to the effect that I am a toadying creep.

In my defence, or perhaps to my further detriment, let me add that my gesture had nothing to do with my interviewee being an HRH. I've been interviewing famous people for more than two decades, and have often found that a small gift of something they are known to like, by way of thanks for their time, establishes a quick rapport which in turn yields a better interview and, in one or two cases, lasting friendship. Call that oleaginous if you like, bribery if you prefer, but it seems to reap dividends.

Keown's most cultured performance

Culture is not a word often associated with football men, except in connection with their left feet. So it was pleasing to spot Martin Keown at the Oxford Playhouse a week or two ago, enjoying an excellent new play by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran called Von Ribbentrop's Watch.

At the interval I sought Keown out and he admitted to me that he wasn't a regular theatre-goer, yet he'd clearly been watching with huge interest, because he'd noticed all sorts of little details in the stagecraft that had escaped me. He was also struck by the parallels between football and the theatre: the need for individual excellence in a team context, the importance of engaging an audience, the choreography. Someone should give this man a job, if not as a football manager then at the Donmar Warehouse.

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