I got clobbered in the street recently. In a hurry to make a doctor’s appointment, I found myself on a narrow pavement behind two enchantingly voluble middle-aged, middle-class women, one pushing a couple of twin babies, presumably her grandchildren, whom she addressed as though they were just home from university, the other gesticulating with wild expressiveness, as though to draw the attention of pilots preparing to land at Heathrow.
What with the roar of the traffic, the screams of the babies and the women’s honking conversation, my hoarse “Excuse me” went unheard. I attempted to slip in on the twins’ side but there was insufficient space between their pushchair and a road murderous with cyclists, so I had to risk the almost equally dangerous option of dodging the other woman’s flailing arms. I miscalculated and she caught me with her elbow full on the jaw. “Oh, my God,” she cried, hearing the crunch, “I’m so dreadfully sorry.” “Madame, you have a right to animated conversation,” I told her, spitting out a tooth. “The fault, comprising impatience and a lack of spatial awareness, is all mine. Think no more about it.” And so peace was made. But had there been a Turkish referee observing us, he would have handed her a red card.
I take it that the significance of this little parable, which also happens to be a true record of events, is not lost on readers who saw, in the flesh or on television, the gross and cruel misjudgement which did for Manchester United’s chances against Real Madrid on Tuesday night. Enough has been said about the legal niceties of this incident in the sports pages of the world’s press for me to pass over them with speed. Ignore those letter-of-the-law pundits who thought the sending-off had merit. It didn’t. Nani, in space, innocently raised his foot in order to control a ball, just as the voluble woman innocently waved her hands to make a point, and as I walked into her fist, so Alvaro Arbeloa walked into Nani’s boot, the difference being that I didn’t roll on the ground clutching a part of me that hadn’t been touched.
Why football hasn’t introduced the hot-spot technology employed in cricket is a mystery to me. If you can tell whether a batsman has nicked a ball by X-raying the bat, you can surely tell whether a footballer has been kicked in the heart by X-raying him. It might be slow, it might necessitate an MRI scanner being rolled on to the pitch, but what’s time when truth is in the balance?
There is something else I don’t understand: why we didn’t wake up on Wednesday morning to find that Uefa had convened an emergency session in the night, overturned the decision and handed Manchester United a passage into the last eight of the European Cup which it would then go on to win? Or failing that, why wasn’t the natural world in disorder when we woke, why weren’t the sun and moon distracted from their orbits, why hadn’t the sheeted dead climbed from their graves, why weren’t owls killing falcons and horses eating one another?
If there were such a thing as natural justice, if the spheres moved in harmony, if God existed, then a thunderbolt would have struck and burnt to cinders the red card waved officiously by Cüneyt Çakir – a man whose name sounds too much like the insults that must get thrown at him, a man too encumbered by umlauts and cedillas, to follow what is happening on the field of play.
"The very reason we play games is to affirm a metaphysical order in imitation of the ideal order we long to see but cannot"
I know – indeed no one knows better – that a game of football is just a game of football. Except that it isn’t. Nothing that we do is ever just what we do. Our every action is a sort of foreshadowing of the essential Great Action whose meaning is locked away from us and might never be revealed. If there is no justice in small things, then there can be no justice in large, and life becomes a random, absurdist lottery for which we’d be fools to buy a ticket. The very reason we play games, or in my case watch them, is to affirm a metaphysical order in imitation of the ideal order we long to see but cannot.
I don’t know when I stopped believing in God, or even if I ever started, but had He wanted my allegiance, all He had to do was reverse decisions too egregiously unfair to be compatible with divine intention. The wrong line call or LBW decision, the catch that wasn’t caught, the low punch that wasn’t noticed, the gamesmanship that shouldn’t have been allowed, the penalty that should or shouldn’t have been given, the rain that shouldn’t have been permitted to fall.
How many times as a boy did I cry out against these miscarriages, not suffered by me personally, not necessarily suffered by a team or a player I supported, simply felt as wrongs that had to be righted. Truly I believed that, spurred by the force of irresistible universal outrage, a sort of Prague Spring of sport, this righting would somehow come about – Henman granted a rain-free rematch against Ivanisevic, Gatting given another chance to play Warne’s ball of the century as he wasn’t ready the first time, Zinedine Zidane’s sending-off revoked in the light of the provocation to which he’d been subjected, Manchester United reinstated as winners, referee and linesmen executed.
At the best of times, we live a hair’s breadth from despair. The innocent die young, the good go unrewarded, the greedy go unpunished.
We love sport because of the brief illusion of equity it brings – so long as we can trust the judgement of those who officiate. Once they err, the entire edifice of fantasy crumbles and we are left with life as it really is, and there is too much of that already.