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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 November 2003, 10:06 GMT
When sport marches into history
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online Magazine

Scotland and Wales are in mourning after failing to reach football's European championships. England are on the brink of elation or despair as they prepare for the Rugby World Cup final. What is it about sport that drives us to such emotional extremes?

What are the magic ingredients that separate a truly great sporting occasion from just another big game?

Some sporting events just seem to capture the national imagination. Plans are cancelled. Factories down tools. People huddle around TV screens. Sports virgins ask stupid questions.

Even the most "sportaphobic" can't help but get caught in the drama. The following are all "musts" for any great sporting occasion.

1. IT MUST INVOLVE A TEAM
Tim Henman, Lennox Lewis, Damon Hill and Denise Lewis are all great British sporting heroes.

But only a team can provide a truly epochal sporting moment. Preferably a football team.

Tim Henman
Will Tim ever earn his place in history?
"It is tied into the British tradition of collective endeavour, which, arguably, goes back to the roots of trade union movement," says Martin Polley, senior lecturer in sports at the University of Southampton.

"Team sports have always had much more resonance. It is the idea of a unit rather than an individual.

"The heroes of 1966 will always be bigger figures than Sebastian Coe or Denise Lewis."

The Americans, by contrast, prefer individual sporting heroes, such as track stars and boxers, he argues.

"They are not so bothered about team sports, because most of them are played out on the domestic stage."

2. NATIONAL PRIDE MUST BE AT STAKE
George Orwell described sport as "war minus the shooting".

It provides a legitimate outlet for nationalistic fervour, and an excuse to settle old scores with neighbours and perceived rivals.

No wonder we love it so much.

"Sport is competitive, but it is non-intellectual. Unlike politics, it can appeal to everyone. There are no linguistic restrictions," says Mr Polley.

Sport is competitive, but it is non-intellectual. Unlike politics, it can appeal to everyone
Martin Polley
But for some nations it is even more than that.

"Over the last 50 years sport has become critically important to national identity, particularly for a stateless nation like Scotland," says Tom Devine, department of Scottish history at Aberdeen University.

"Scotland's national game, football, is extremely important." Oh well then.

3. ANCIENT RIVALRIES MUST BE STIRRED UP
And there are so many to choose from, although generally the closer the neighbour the more bitter the contest.

"Anywhere where you have had a history of border disputes, there is usually a closely fought match," says Mr Polley.

Euro 96
Ancient rivalries: England lost to Germany at Euro 96
If you have ever been at war with the country, or there is a lingering colonial legacy to deal with, even better. Think of England and Australia, England and Scotland, England and Argentina, England and Germany.

In fact, England and just about anybody.

4. THE PLUCKY UNDERDOG MUST TRIUMPH
The home nations rarely go into big games as favourites. It just wouldn't do.

5. A HERO MUST EMERGE FROM THE RANKS
Team games may be king, but if there is an individual we can worship as well, it is the icing on the cake. Bobby Moore, Gary Lineker and David Beckham have all been held up as enduring symbols of our national hopes and aspirations.

Will Jonny Wilkinson be next?

"In sports history circles, Jonny Wilkinson is already being talked about as the Bobby Moore of his generation. If they win on Saturday that is," says Mr Polley.

"Rugby union is big enough now and he is obviously ready to take on that role."

6. ONE MOMENT MUST GO DOWN IN HISTORY
"They think it's all over... it is now!"

The great sporting occasion is not complete without a defining moment - an image that can be replayed on television sports quizzes until the end of time.

World Cup winners 1966
They think it's all over...
It must be burned into the memory of everyone who witnesses it, long after the cheers of the crowd - and the stinging hangover - have faded.

Scottish footballer Archie Gemmell dancing through the Dutch defence to score his wonder goal at the 1978 World Cup is the perfect example. The fact that the team went home shortly afterwards in disgrace, having failed to get through the first round, has long been forgotten.

The goal entered the culture. It provided a pivotal scene in Trainspotting, the biggest Scottish film of recent years. It has even been turned into a ballet.

7. A SENSE OF POETIC JUSTICE MUST PREVAIL
The great sporting occasion gives us a sense that it was meant to be. Even if your team loses - especially if your team loses - there has to be a sense of destiny about the whole thing.

8. THE SCORELINE IS ALL-IMPORTANT
Or is it?

According to Martin Polley, the sense of national celebration surrounding the 2002 World Cup proved it is possible to lose a game and still enjoy yourself.

"England lost to Brazil, but I think a lot of people knew we were never going to get that far in the competition I don't think anyone became less proud because of the result. I don't think in the long term it has any impact."

Several hundred thousand England Rugby fans will probably disagree.


Some of your comments so far:

If Orwell was right - and I think he was - then we need to think about the resources we commit to sport. An England win in Sydney on Saturday will have real political consequences, far outreaching the world of Rugby. Our political and cultural future is shaped by these events, and the old argument that "it's only a game" looks more and more naive.
Rob Stradling, UK

I never cease to be amazed by the amount of energy, time and resources we as a country put into sport. I live quite close to Old Trafford football ground and many times I have been forced to alter my plans due to the delays and disruption caused by football matches.
George Standfast, UK

I think the wonderful feeling of Schadenfreude was overlooked. Normally I would instinctively want to support a fellow UK national team when they are playing international games. Unfortunately I cannot bring myself to want Scotland to win anything, for historic reasons.
Ivan Lepak, England

"It is tied into the British tradition of collective endeavour, which, arguably, goes back to the roots of trade union movement." Both football and rugby owe their roots to the middle classes - who invented the games and who had probably never even heard of trades unions.
Jez Baker, UK

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