I'd rather be a cretin than a joyless bore

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The Independent Online

Was I cretinised this weekend? The facts seem to suggest that I was.

Was I cretinised this weekend? The facts seem to suggest that I was. For an hour and a half on Saturday, I sat among of group of people whose mood ripened from resentment through boredom to a sort of rancid self-loathing. Behind me, a man kept up a sustained commentary of despair, like John Motson on Mogadon. "Pass it to the other side, why don't you, you useless tosser, yes, well done, what a waste of money you are, mate, no, honestly, they're a disgrace to the shirt this lot, I've never seen a worse back four in my life, oh what ­ was ­ that?"

It was a game of football, one of the worst I have ever seen. It was so terrible that, even as a spectator, one began to feel contaminated by the spirit of futility and confusion on the pitch. At the final whistle, those around me shuffled off wordlessly, unable even to say goodbye to each other for the last time of the season, anxious only to be alone with their shame and misery.

Cretinised? That must be right, surely. When the French philosopher Robert Redeker recently argued against the cultural effects of sport in Les Temps Modernes, he might have been thinking of us. "How can it be," he asked, "that men in contemporary society don't vomit in disgust at sporting corruption (while they detest it in politics), and still don't get unutterably bored in front of sporting spectacles, which are always the same, cyclical, as if time had been frozen?"

Redeker's argument is not a subtle one, but it packs a punch. The growing obsession with sport is a crime against society. "It has got rid of political life and replaced it with an ersatz, phoney community united by sport." According to a columnist in Le Monde, the problem has been particularly severe in France since the country's triumph in the 1998 World Cup: "Cette vague footballistique... crétinise encore plus les Francais."

If the French have been cretinised by success ­ footballistique, rugbistique, athlétique, tennistique ­ where does that leave us, a nation driven mad by occasional minor victories and more frequent defeats, heroic or ignominious? An answer of sorts is to be found on the radio station TalkSport, where every day the schedule is filled with the same dreary, blinkered, droning conversation about football. No more perfectly dispiriting summation of a cretinised society could be found.

The question is whether one would prefer to spend the day in the company of M Redeker. He and other sport-haters have a precise and materialist view of the human spirit. Within each of us there is a finite supply of passion, curiosity and community spirit. Sport, the new opium of the people, dulls the senses and diverts energy away from worthwhile outlets and into pointless sporting activities.

Is this really true? Are the people who experience elation, despair, hope and disappointment on or around a pitch or a court less involved in the wider world than someone sitting in his study, sneering at their "ersatz, phoney community"?

Is it not at least possible that their passion and unity make them more, not less, alive? Sport may be vulgar, but then so is Tracey Emin's latest exhibition. It may often be dull, but could it be any duller than Stephen Poliakoff's last play at the National Theatre?

Coincidentally, Channel 4 chose this weekend to show The Fan, a film in which Robert De Niro plays the part of man whose obsession with his baseball team becomes the focus of rage and disappointment caused by personal failure. De Niro goes bonkers, of course, and ends up kidnapping the young son of a leading player. "Show us you care!" he screams at the player before the final bloodbath.

I found myself sympathising with Bob ­ a cretin, yes, but more fully engaged with the world than the joyless, dessicated philosophy of M Redeker will allow.