Coming Home

BY STEWART SLATER

“It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

It may seem churlish to drag up Dr Johnson’s dictum on women preaching in the aftermath of the Lionesses’ famous victory. For it was, surely, one of the great British achievements worthy, on the basis of the breathless and ubiquitous coverage, of comparison to the discovery of gravity, the Industrial Revolution, or any of the numerous biffings handed out to the French over the centuries.

But as the sugar-rush of victory begins to dissipate (a process which, to be honest, might happen slightly quicker for your Scottish-born, son of Scots correspondent), perhaps we can admit that Lichfield’s greatest son had a point.

For what happened on Sunday evening was a pretty standard football match. There was no moment of earth-shaking genius, no feat which redefined what we think possible on the pitch. It was just that, at that time and place, our eleven women were twice as good at moving the ball over the goalline as their eleven.

It was certainly a surprise. The defining myth of English football is that England never wins. All the fervid incantations of “It’s coming home” in the run-up to a tournament act like prayers offered to a malevolent deity, who delights in nothing more than disappointing his worshippers. Whereas the Greek gods forced Sisyphus to roll a rock up a hill, only for it to roll back down for eternity, England’s fans have the penalty shoot-out, an exquisite torture designed purely to snatch away victory just when it finally seems possible. A nation inured to 56 years of hurt and counting does not, in its bones, expect to win.

But if victory came against the run of history, there was more to it than that. For home is where we live, not where they live. It is a concept of exclusivity, us against them. Whether or not England really is football’s “home”, members of our tribe had gone out and won the prize by defeating the out-group, one which, in this case, had an unfortunate habit of winning. Although the achievement belonged to those on the pitch, it was taken up by their compatriots and the whole nation could drink deep from the draft of tribal superiority spiked, perhaps, with a shot of revenge. To ram the point home, the trophy was paraded through London, in a manner familiar to a Roman general displaying his booty to the populace in triumph. For one, perhaps brief, moment, we were better than them.

But sporting tribalism has long been regarded with trepidation. The philosopher Emperor Marcus Aurelius starts his Meditations with a list of things for which he is grateful, one of which is “not to become a Green or Blue supporter at the races, nor side with the Lights or Heavies in the amphitheatre.” Half of Byzantium was destroyed and around thirty thousand people killed in the Nika Riots of 532, sparked by a confrontation between partisans of different chariot-racing teams. El Salvador used Honduras’ reaction to the loss of a World Cup qualifier to launch 1969’s evocatively named but almost forgotten “Football War”.

At its heart though, sport is more than just tribalism in a pair of trainers. Socrates said,

“It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”

And sport is the way we do that for society as a whole. It is a way of discovering just what a human body is capable of. For the great sporting moments are those which expand our understanding of human capability.

Before Roger Bannister did so, it was debatable whether man would ever break 4 minutes for a mile. Michael Johnson’s 200m in Atlanta and Usain Bolt’s 100m in Beijing were faster than experts at the time thought possible. Chris Froome’s 80km solo break-away in 2018’s Giro d’Italia was such an extreme feat that, perhaps with an eye to cycling’s history, the famously secretive Team Sky offered to share his performance data to prove it was legitimate. Michael Phelps’ 23 Olympic golds show what can be achieved if your body is curiously well adapted to propelling itself through water. Eliud Kipchoge showed that it was possible, albeit in somewhat artificial conditions, to run a marathon in less than 2 hours.

We may remember other sporting moments, but not as pure sport. Jesse Owens’ 4 Olympic golds in Berlin are remembered for the context, not the manner, in which they were won. Mohammed Ali’s legend is unavoidably wrapped up with the Civil Rights struggle in America even if  his performance in the Rumble in the Jungle is testimony to humanity’s potential for resilience.

For the great moments in sport are those where competitors are taken to the very edge, by forcing them to ride around France in three weeks or stand for 45 minutes in front of an opponent whose only intention is to render them unconscious for example, or where they are given free rein to find it themselves on, say, a race-track.

Football, however, goes out of its way to avoid this. Matches last 90 minutes and half time stops the players getting too tired. A tennis match finishes when it finishes. The game stops for injuries. Primoz Roglic fell off his bike on stage 5 of this year’s Tour de France, dislocating his shoulder. He popped it back in himself at the roadside, remounted and rode to the finish before participating in the next 9 stages. These rules may be good for player welfare, but they come at the price of limiting the opportunities for transcendence. Most World Cups pass without a defining moment of individual brilliance. No Olympics passes without someone doing something extraordinary. Being able to “do it on a rainy night in Stoke” is useful no doubt, but the problem is that too many people can. Great sporting achievements are produced when one person does what we think no-one can.

This is not to decry the Lionesses in some fit of Anglophobic pique. Only one team could win and it was them. It is entirely reasonable to hope that if there is to be a winner, it should be our team – we are, at the end of the day, tribal animals. Their victory may be a useful symbol of greater female freedom. It may have beneficial side effects in terms of greater participation. But these things are context. They make it a great moment for English sport, not a great sporting moment.

Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.