As the world has gone dark this week, with this sudden sideways swerve into submarines and silos and the nuclear threat, it has become necessary to stop listening to sports radio, watching sports news on television and to follow sports streams online, mainly to avoid the very real prospect of accidentally hearing about the end of the world from Ray Parlor.
This is by no means a review of Ray, who seems like a lovely guy and would probably be great company as the skies flash white and firestorms devour the horizon. There’s never really a bad time for an anecdote about being dropped for calling Gareth Southgate a ‘big nose’ during a team meeting. Hold my hand, Ray. Now do the one about Robert Pires smoking.
It’s a common occurrence these days to hear about major news events from the most random digital sources. I posted about it on social media a few days ago and the responses were predictably good. The Twitter user who heard about Phil Neville’s assassination of Osama bin Laden. The moment TalkSport radio broke the news of Keith Flint’s death (“they went to Danny Murphy to react”). Another person who found out about the result of the Brexit referendum thanks to Greggs, the baker administrator.
This is the way of things now. The end of the world will come not with a bang or a groan, but with a cat meme, a shocked face emoji and an argument about Nadine Dorries.
The main problem, at this point, is that the end of the world is great. It feels like an authentic story, worth proper accumulation. I guess I had always imagined a Maitlis, an Alagiah, a final Dimbleby.
Unlike a segment where Danny Mills discusses a multi-city preemptive thermonuclear assault (“not for me”) or Alan Brazil tries to rationalize the detonation of a 100 megaton device over the North Sea (“this what you are asking for is consistency”). Although to be fair, I’d take a chewy Tony Cascarino. Perhaps he could compare this to his playing experiences in France.
Is it okay to make jokes about it? Probably not. Although I’m old enough to remember the last time there was a similar feeling of instant apocalypse in the air, back in the 1980s. Between fear and paranoia, and apart from helpful acts that can actually have an effect, it is very useful to take your mind off things.
Plus, it’s been hard to avoid the absurdity of viewing these events through a sporting lens. We got so used to it. The past three decades have seen the sport flourish on all surfaces. As David Goldblatt has pointed out, football is now popular culture, a booming global entertainment industry that crowds out all other forms of shared discourse.
So when real-world events take hold, the sport will continue to interpret them through this prism, inserting its own loss of scale, the digressions into the ground war in Europe accompanied by the words “and now onto golf”, the seemingly unshakable belief that what’s really going on here is a story about the location of this season’s Champions League final.
We have seen a real confusion between the roles of Fifa and NATO, an assumption that what wretched Gianni Infantino is doing now has no consequence as death rains down on 40 million people, as if Vladimir Putin spent his time walking around the Kremlin, checking his Twitter feed, saying things like, “We’re still at the Europa conference. Activate the second battalion.
And yet, things looked a little different at the end of the week. There is always a fear of falling into the politics of the empty gesture, a need to resist demonstrations of false concern. Fair play on that front to Amanda Staveley, who did not insult her audience by claiming to be the least bit concerned about soft power’s complicity in bloodshed and war when she addressed the conference. sportswoman of the Financial Times, instead saving his sympathy for the trials of Roman Abramovich.
The real sport-washing movement here would have been to semaphore a false and meaningless concern. Not to give a real insight into this harsh and very cold reality.
But in between was the sense that the sports media, while absurdly exaggerated and oddly balanced, was doing a pretty good job with some of that. I overheard Trevor Sinclair on TalkSport asking a Ukrainian politician how long the resistance in Kyiv could hope to hold out before it was, in fact, wiped out – cutting to the chase and drawing a heartfelt response that probably wouldn’t have reached its daytime public otherwise.
Sky Sports News later asked Andriy Shevchenko to look into the camera and deliver a message directly to the Russian people, even as the scrolling text around his haunted, hollow-eyed face spoke of Livingston v Celtic and Katie Boulter retiring injured in the opening round of the Lyon Open, a stunning mix of frivolous trimmings and deeply serious content.
And yes, sport has spent the last two decades taking the money and asking no questions, lost in a dream without consequences and without conditions, from which we must all wake up – from sport to finance, to politics, law and enthusiastic consumers. There may be a fix now, as the edges are cut off from this living fantasy world. But there is also some value in all of this.
Putin has already shown us the power of messaging, reach and the ability to simply communicate. Its power lies in projection, spectacle, iconography, the feeling that nothing is true and everything is possible. No one really knows the limits of these things, how the digital networking of every human being on the planet can affect how events unfold.
If sport really is most people’s culture, then who knows, maybe flags and solidarity, not to mention expulsions and boycotts, can really have an effect. The great sport may have been played like a sucker. But there is no reason why these same channels cannot transmit another type of message. There’s still time to get online and pay off some of that debt.