Flicked on the telly last night around 7 pm to find the score at Wembley was England 1 Germany 1 and they were into extra time. So I watched. I had thought that the ladies’ version of the beautiful game was altogether superior, lacking in petulance, bad temper, and melodrama. Alas, I was disabused. It is exactly the same as the men’s game. Taking a dive, rolling in agony, aggression, foul language (the commentator said you didn’t need to be a lip reader), shirt pulling and indeed, after the winning goal was scored, shirt removal. Then with about ten minutes to go, England took the ball to Germany’s left corner line and footered around, letting the clock run down. No more open play; they shut the game down. When the final whistle blew, Wembley erupted. England was over the moon and Germany sick as a parrot.
A Pyrrhic victory, if you ask me. What shall it profit a woman if she gain the whole world, and lose her own soul? But why is it that sport at a high level has become so deadly serious? So deadly.
The answer is Money. Where there’s muck, there’s brass. Now that the Big Sponsors see the woman’s game can fill Wembley Stadium, the big movers and shakers will converge, broadcasting rights will be assigned, and television deals struck. Already this Euro final is being cast as a game changer, a pivotal moment, and an inspiration to all young girls who want to play football. Dare to follow your dream. You too can be a histrionic shirt-puller.
What were the words of the mythical T. E. Henley? “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” The young Alan Bennett ridiculed this – not so much the sentiment as its rendition by an Anglican vicar in his immortal Beyond the Fringe sketch. The modern sensibility looks upon the idea of sportsmanship, or sportswomanship, with disdain and derision. Didn’t an American football coach say that winning was not the most important thing, it was the only thing? And of course Bob Shankly was famously misquoted when he purportedly said that football was more important than a matter of life and death. He actually meant precisely the opposite, but somehow he got lost in translation.
Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Games proceed apace in Birmingham. The Prime Minister (still Boris) issued a statement of justification for the government’s spending three quarters of a billion on the project. It was an “emphatic yes” to “legacy”. His mode of delivery was similar to that of his closing remarks at his final PMQs. The words came out so rapidly that they fell over one another. He seems to have developed pressure of speech, said to be a sign of hypomania. Bread and circuses. Hasta la vista, baby. Meanwhile the two contenders vying to be Her Majesty’s fifteenth PM employ strategies not dissimilar to a sports team who are having an off day but who know how to dig deep and produce a result even when it doesn’t look pretty. Mr Sunak has decided to lower the base rate of income tax which, apparently far from being a U-turn, is entirely consistent with his earlier assertion that tax cuts belonged to a fantasy world. But where is he going to find the money? He’s going to fine everybody who doesn’t turn up for their GP appointment a tenner. Meanwhile Ms Truss wants to give every school leaver with top grades automatic entry to Oxbridge. I suppose that’s part of the “levelling up” agenda. I wonder if Mr Sunak consulted the GPs, or Ms Truss Oxbridge, before they produced, like rabbits out of a hat, such policies. But it isn’t the GPs, nor the universities, that the Prime Ministerial pretenders need, for the moment, to placate. Rather it is – we are told – about 160,000 members of the Conservative Party. Presumably once the premiership has been secured, any rash promises can then be nullified by executing a U-turn that is not a U-turn. Sometimes in order to win, you need to win ugly.
At a time when the UK is struggling to redefine her role in the world, we should remember the close links that have always existed between imperial ambition, and the sports field. The Empire was forged on the playing fields of Eton. There’s a breathless hush in the close tonight… Play up, play up, and play the game. This is why Boris was so keen to spend a lot on Birmingham. It is a question of prestige, or, in modern parlance, “soft power”. I’ve never liked the expression “soft power”. It implies the coexistence of “hard power”. So the country puts on a double act on “the international stage”. Guns and roses. The hard man soft man act. The steel fist in the velvet glove. Trident and The Last Night of the Proms.
And yet… Talking of the Proms, I listened to the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, live from the Royal Albert Hall, on Sunday morning. They played Valentyn Silvestrov, Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms, and a beautiful version of the Ukrainian National Anthem. I wonder if Mr Putin listened. But I don’t know what his musical tastes might be. Pussy Riot? The Freedom Orchestra played beautifully. During the slow movement of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, it occurred to me. Mr Putin, in the end, you cannot defeat this.