Hold the Back Page
I hate watching old football matches. Old hurling, rugby and tennis matches leave me cold too. Virgin Media apparently showed 13 Champions League finals this weekend. It's a vision of hell. The whole orgy of retromania over the past couple of months has been pretty infernal. In the absence of live sport, it seems like every notable match of recent times has been rerun on multiple channels. I haven't watched a minute of those games. It would have felt utterly pointless.
It's not just that I don't want to rewatch games I've already seen. There are famous games I haven't seen, the 1970 World Cup final, the 1968 All-Ireland hurling final, the 1974 Lions Test matches in South Africa, but still have no interest in watching now.
I'm interested in sports history. I've watched almost all of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary series. Yet when I think about it, the ones I enjoyed most were those where my lack of knowledge about the events covered lent the programme a cliffhanger aspect.
An American would have known how things panned out for the Michigan or North Carolina college basketball teams, the Miami and Southern Methodist University college football sides or the likes of Marcus Dupree, Fernando Valenzuela or Tim Richmond. The fact that I didn't meant watching documentaries about them was like watching a match. These were tales of the unexpected.
Whereas when the subject was something I already knew about, the Larry Holmes-Muhammad Ali fight, the 1995 Rugby World Cup or the rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, the programmes were much less interesting.
In the same way, perhaps the reason that all my favourite sports books are American has less to do with superior writing on that side of the Atlantic than the fact that I didn't have the first clue what was going to happen in Friday Night Lights, Boys of Summer or A Season On The Brink. Reading about the events described was like experiencing them in real time.
Sport's magical mystery tour element is what makes it special. Tuesday evening's match between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich had more to do with the real spirit of sport than any rerun.
Joshua Kimmich's magnificent chip meant that Dortmund went into the second half knowing they had just 45 minutes to keep their title hopes alive. They put Bayern under sustained pressure, Erling Haaland being denied a penalty when his goal-bound shot was blocked by Jerome Boateng's arm, Jadon Sancho and Achraf Hakimi putting in dangerous crosses, Mahmoud Dahoud forcing a fine save from Manuel Neuer.
But the danger of Bayern striking on the break to finish the contest was ever present and shown by a Robert Lewandowski shot which came back off the post. As the minutes ticked by, the suspense reached Hitchcockian levels. Would Borussia manage to get the goal which would keep the title race alive? Or would Bayern hang on? The reigning champions prevailed in the end but it had been a close run thing.
I'm a sucker for almost every type of sport. A few hours before writing this I marvelled at a superb individual try by Michael Jennings for Parramatta Eels against the Brisbane Broncos as Australia's National Rugby League resumed. I'd happened across the game by accident. That's often the way.
Just a couple of minutes can be enough to involve me in the fortunes of the competitors on screen. Whether it's a ski jumping event, a table tennis match, a rowing regatta, the deciding set of a tennis encounter, the final six holes of a golf tournament, the concluding stages of a Moto GP race, cycling classic or rally stage, a basketball, handball or volleyball game, I find myself caught in its spell.
I sense a comeback, pick a favourite, admire an underdog, detect or impose a narrative, immerse myself in the peculiar atmosphere of whatever obscure sport has caught my eye and can't look away till I discover how this particular showdown pans out.
Suspense and sport seem inseparable to me. Watching a game when you already know the result is as unsatisfactory as reading a whodunnit after someone's told you the solution.
This may have something to do with my upbringing. My father's determination to avoid hearing the results of the matches to be featured on Match of The Day verged on the fanatical. He would avoid not just television and radio programmes but even people who might tell him the day's scorelines. Friends visiting the house on a Saturday evening would be told, before the conversation started, not to tell him any results if they knew them.
It was not an uncommon attitude at the time. There's a terrific episode of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads where the two protagonists spend the day going to great lengths to avoid learning the score of an England game against Bulgaria whose highlights are to be shown that night. Having just about managed to do it, they discover that the game was called off because of a waterlogged pitch.
The Lads, and my father, were in the right. Because The Big Match, which aired on a Sunday when everyone knew the results, seemed a much less vital programme than its BBC rival. Knowing the result really did knock the good out of your viewing. That's why in an era when it's almost impossible not to pick up the result somewhere along the line, Match Of The Day seems greatly diminished.
The result isn't the only thing that matters in sport. But the ebb and flow of the contest and the way fortunes and expectations change as it progresses can't be properly recaptured when you can apply hindsight to the proceedings. You need to have been there when it was actually happening.
It's become a cliché to say, in reference to a particularly thrilling game or surprising result, that, "You couldn't have scripted that". But the statement does convey an important truth. The greatest asset of sport is its ability to mirror the unpredictability of life.
Even the best movie or book may not be entirely unpredictable to someone with knowledge of the genre or the author or director's previous work.
But there are times when sport presents us with something that no-one could have seen coming. Liverpool's comeback from 3-0 down at half-time in the 2005 Champions League final is a prime example. A repeat viewing can never recapture what it felt like to watch that. The knowledge of what actually happened gets in the way.
Sport's affinity with the open destiny of life is perhaps its unique selling point. But it does mean that even the greatest games can only be properly experienced once. With a great book, movie or album you can always find new things. Sometimes the different way you look at them reflects the different person you've become since the first encounter.
That doesn't happen with sport. Big sporting events undoubtedly have an edge over those other experiences in terms of immediate visceral excitement. Their one-off nature has a lot to do with that. But having been witnessed once, they become oddly redundant.
In the current issue of Sight and Sound, the world's finest film magazine, editor Mike Williams, commenting on the Covid-19 related global closure of cinemas, says, "if not a second was ever filmed again, we'd still fill decades worth of magazines with discovery, debate and reappraisal."
In the same way, there have already been enough great books and great music written to keep us all going even if no-one ever picked up a pen or an instrument again. There are plenty of people happy to write off contemporary film, fiction and music and stick to the classics. It might not be the wisest route but it's sustainable.
Sport is different. Someone who decides modern sport isn't worth watching is unlikely to spend the rest of their life watching games from a previous golden age. They're more likely to lose interest in sport altogether.
Without the new and the live, sport is as moribund as a stationary shark. It loses the quality of the unexpected which makes it real in a way that so many experiences in our media-saturated, mediated to within an inch of its life, era are not. In a world where even 'Reality TV' follows the most predictable of scripts, sport retains an untamed quality.
Sport might have an element of soap opera about it, but the good guys do not always win or the bad guys always lose. Looking back at old games with the benefit of hindsight makes it easy to extract banal lessons and predictable morals of the story. But those elements are not present when a game is unfolding in front of you. The bullshit hasn't been born yet.
That's why I detest reruns and why I'm delighted by the return of live sport. As Ricky Nelson sang in 'Garden Party', "If memories were all I sang, I'd rather drive a truck."
Sunday Indo Sport
Last weekend's Bundesliga broadcasting monopoly offered a tantalising glimpse of a parallel football universe in which the attention of Irish football fans was not exclusively focussed on the Premier League.