Sep 2007

Guide to Spectator Sports (Part 1)

I’m not a sports fan.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as impressed as anyone by people doing incredibly skilful or difficult things. I will sit, wide-eyed and uttering little “oohs” and “aahs”, as an archive reel of the best goals ever scored in football gets shown on TV. I will “whoaaa!” along with the rest of them as a basketball player launches himself from halfway down the court and slam dunks. I’ll applaud like a trained seal as a hurling player catches the sliotar, rounds two defenders faster than you can blink and rifles it into the top corner of the goal. And I’ll shake my head in disbelief as Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe perform apparently superhuman feats of acrobatics as they cover every inch of the tennis court in a spectacular rally.

So I do get the idea of spectator sports. But let’s be brutally honest here… 99% of a sports fans time is spent anticipating those magical moments… waiting for them. The only exception to this (in my rarely humble opinion) is – bizarrely – golf. But more about that another time.

Anyways, given that people clearly don’t watch sports simply for the few transcendant moments, there’s obviously something else at work. Psychological identification and emotional transference mostly. Hardly a secret. The sports fan invests part of themself in the team or individual they are rooting for.

Why a particular team is chosen is often down to geography. A team of eleven men wearing the colours of your nation becomes “us”. We are playing Germany. Everyone in Chicago wants The Bulls to win. In Chicago, The Bulls are “us”.

Here in Ireland, when it comes to hurling or gaelic football, it’s completely unheard-of to support any county other than the one you were born in. But other times it’s more abstract… what percentage of Bjorn Borg fans were Swedish I wonder? And Manchester United apparently have millions of fans in China.

Football (soccer)

The world’s sport. Everyone loves football. Well, except the Americans. They hate it so much they invented a bastardised form of rugby which involves next to no ball-foot contact and called that football. I think they hoped it would mess with everyone’s heads, but everyone just ignored them and went on playing proper football. Actually, it’s wrong to say “the Americans”. Most Americans are fanatical about football as it happens, just not the United Statians (though I hear a certain Mr. Posh Spice is changing all that). I spent a while in Brazil. None more fanatical, let me tell you. The president of Bolivia recently had his nose broken playing football. And remember that South American goalkeeper who was shot dead upon his return from the world cup? Now that’s taking your sports seriously.

The trouble with football though is it’s just not very interesting to watch. A three-minute highlight reel from a 90-minute game is generally the best you’re going to get. As a neutral observer of last year’s world cup (Ireland failed to qualify) I tried to watch a few of the games. Two billion people can’t be wrong, right? Wrong. Waves of existential nausea crashed over me as I sat there, terrifyingly conscious of 2 billion souls enjoying what was – to me – a spectacle devoid of any value whatsoever. Rarely have I felt so alone.

I admit I only managed to sit through one full game and rarely even made it to half time in the others. So perhaps I coincidentally missed all the good bits. But those precious minutes of my life spent watching 11 overpaid French primadonnas faffing around with 11 overpaid Italian primadonnas can never be recovered. That hour and a half have gone forever. And out there, somewhere, was some paint I could have been watching dry.


Popular in England and a few ex-colonies, this peculiar activity is not so much a sport as it is a bout of abstract gittery. It’s only worthwhile function is to provide ambience for villages in Sussex. Y’know… it’s a warm summer day, you’re lying by the river and enjoying the stillness. There’s a wonderful insect hum in the air that seems to focus the silence rather than disturb it. And off in the far distance the sound of cricket bat on ball and a smattering of applause punctuates that silence every few minutes.

But aside from playing a small part in an English summer soundscape, cricket is otherwise devoid of any real value and is actually extremely irritating if one is accidentally exposed to it. In that sense it’s the sports equivalent of a cloud of midges.

Carrying bluetongue.


I lived in Chicago for a while, right when Michael Jordan was leading The Bulls to their nine thousandth consecutive national title. The entire city would come to a stand-still when the Bulls were playing and even a disinterested foreigner like myself couldn’t help but be impressed by the fervour with which the locals followed their team.

Then I watched a game on TV. What a waste of time! Each team is expected to score during an attack. Your team takes the ball, passes and dribbles it to the opposition end, puts it through the hoop and then rushes back to defend. The opposition team then passes and dribbles the ball to your team’s end whereupon they put it through the hoop. Repeat for 48 minutes. So the excitement isn’t focussed on your team scoring points, but on the opposition missing them. The winner is the team that doesn’t screw up as often. How underwhelming is that?


Ireland have just been knocked out of the World Cup by Argentina. According to the media prior to the competition, this Irish squad is the best the country has ever had. They were genuine contenders to win a first World Cup for our small island. They would go all the way and carry the entire nation with them. Turns out they weren’t so great after all. Turns out they struggled against the weak teams in their group and were comprehensively outplayed by the strong ones.

Anyways, I don’t have much to say about rugby as I don’t know much about it. Except that Ireland aren’t as good as they thought. Argentina are better than the Irish thought. And there’s not a single product available to the Irish consumer that can’t be sold with a rugby-world-cup-themed advert. There’s an official soft-drink of the Irish World Cup Squad of course. But there’s also an official snack food, an official beer, an official water, an official airline, and official bank… all we were short of was “Anusol: The official hemorrhoid treatment of the Irish World Cup Squad”. Spectator sports are becoming little more than marketing opportunities.

Football (American)

Ha. A-ha ha ha ha. As Giles once remarked… “I think it’s rather odd that a nation that prides itself on its virility should feel compelled to strap on forty pounds of protective gear just in order to play rugby.” Wise words indeed.

Tune in to Part 2 where I will discuss football (Gaelic), motorsports, cycling and golf among others.

Posted in: Opinion