Paul Hayward: How the genius of Lionel Messi and Dan Carter gave me hope in cancer fight
Two moments of breathtaking skill made my illness fall away and confirmed that there is no finer vehicle for optimism than sport
Leaving Twickenham on Saturday night I had extra reason to thank the tournament that had just been won by New Zealand. The light on the horizon of covering a home World Cup had helped me through six weeks of cancer treatment.
The elation on that final walk from the ground was on a higher scale than the usual pleasure World Cups bring.
And at first I was slow to understand the surge of extra sentiment. But then the memory came coursing back of the time I set myself a target of being well enough to be in a press box seat for the England-Fiji opening fixture and to see it through to the final.
Sport is my living, and a passion, too. But I understand it better now, nearly 30 years into the job. Much of the best sports writing is about the life stories that underpin the winning and losing.
‘Adversity overcome’ is a default mode for reporting and broadcasting. A corollary is that sport can help people in the most profound ways, on the field and up in the stands.
It can help make sense of life and connect people in difficulty to a world they have fallen out of and to which they fear they may never return.
In April and May this year I had 30 doses of radiotherapy and six of concurrent chemotherapy for a type of head and neck cancer. It is one of the most brutally condensed cancer treatment regimens out there.
It damages taste buds, lymph nodes, salivary glands, skin and sometimes bone structures. Some of that havoc is irreversible but the success rates overall are generally high because the medical assault on the disease is so ferocious.
At the lowest point, as most cancer patients will attest, you feel you have moved into a separate category of humanity. It was during this time that I realized the biggest human divide is between the well and the unwell.
The ‘well’ are visible, going about their business. The ‘unwell’ are to be found in hospitals or alone in rooms, marshalling their courage and doing the best they can.
Railing against the “injustice” of it is no good. “Why me” should really be “why not me?” To feel hard done by only makes it worse. To think of it merely as bad luck robs it of some its power to torment.
And a sportswriter could hardly fail to acknowledge the role of bad luck in this universe. Almost everything we write features some misfortune, big or small.
No self-pity, then, but you do need things to offset the physical trauma; the shock of being cast into the world of hospital corridors, radiotherapy chambers and chemotherapy drips.
Friends sent me CDs, books and films. If your place of work can match the camaraderie of the press box then you are indeed lucky, because the encouragement from friends and colleagues, on top of the family support, was invaluable, and salutary.
Always, alongside this kindness, was sport. To make sense of the world. To offer glimpses of people doing their best, expressing themselves, persevering. A distinction ought to be made, of course, between terminal illnesses where the end of life becomes visible, and potentially curable forms of cancer, say. My two brilliant consultants have always given me reason to believe I will come through.
In those endless days of reporting to the radiotherapy unit at the Royal Sussex County Hospital, sport was always there, always waiting back at home. I watched England’s cricket tour of the West Indies with a new intensity. Feeling grim, I would study the TV pictures with awe. The setting, the stadium, the minutiae of batting and bowling. To watch this, and countless more live events, was to appreciate all over again the skill and commitment of professional sport.
Then came the sharpest ray of light. Barcelona v Bayern Munich at Camp Nou, in May. On the screen in a room short on cheer, Lionel Messi collected a pass on his left foot, turned inside then out in an impossibly narrow channel and sent Jerome Boateng, the Bayern defender, falling sideways like a felled tree.
Out came Manuel Neuer, the world’s best goalkeeper, to quash the threat with a giant, raised arm. And Messi chipped him. Chipped one of the biggest and most intimidating men in football.
As the ball bounced into the net Rafinha, another Bayern defender, went with it, his body a tangle of thwarted desperation. The camera panned round the crowd to capture the sense of wonder.
A man in an Argentina shirt and Barcelona scarf was having a religious experience. On the commentary, Martin Tyler said: “Only football can make you feel like this.” I felt myself rise from my chair, and illness fell away.
That moment will not leave my memory, because it made the world feel full of possibilities again. And to think: philosophers have searched for uplifting human truths in the most complex of areas, yet here was a dink from the boot of Lionel Messi casting light across the world.
A friend reminds me of how Frankel, probably the finest Flat racer of all time, kept his trainer Henry Cecil going long after cancer might have claimed him. With that wonderful animal, Cecil was like a great composer trying to finish his masterpiece before darkness fell. The Frankel story is at the extreme end of a struggle millions face every day, and are facing now as I type.
This is not the sort of piece I would usually be inclined to write. The charge of self-indulgence is not one I would want to lumber myself with. But if it helps anyone to believe that setting targets, or finding things to look forward to on the other side of illness, is a good idea, then it is worth casting a little light on a private experience.
In the great narrative of Saturday’s Rugby World Cup final it seemed right to me that Dan Carter should swing the game back in New Zealand’s direction with an audacious dropped goal that evoked Messi’s chip over Neuer. The perfectly looping ball, carrying its message of boldness and creativity.
Carter had missed the 2011 final through injury, but stuck around, persevered, kept aiming ahead. His man of the match performance in the final endorsed a thought I have carried round all year: that sport is one of the very best vehicles we have for optimism, for hope.