On the first day of this year’s Tour de France, cycling pundits expected Manx sprinter Mark Cavendish to win. For the first time in seven years the opening stages were to be held in England, and the first stage would loop through Yorkshire from Leeds to the finishing line in Harrogate. The latter town was where Cavendish’s mother was from, said excited ITV commentators, then, as the pack of riders jostled for position in the last few kilometres, the same commentators feverishly imagined him receiving the yellow jersey from William and Kate having won the stage. Boxed in, Cavendish attempted to elbow himself some room for the final sprint and fell to the tarmac, injuring himself and ending his participation in the competition.
While Cavendish has in the past shown himself more than capable of crashing in the last few metres without any larger narrative affecting his judgement, I couldn’t help feeling that the ‘Cavendish must win’ bandwagon had contributed to the rider’s fate.
A few days later, last year’s Tour winner, Chris Froome – who had been selected as Australian media mogul-owned Brit-pride provocateurs Team Sky’s lead rider at the expense of banter-friendly winner of the 2012 Tour Bradley Wiggins – crashed for the third time in two days and abandoned the race. Sky, by now experts in establishing bulletproof narratives at the drop of a rider, assured gathered journalists that things were fine.
The night before Froome dropped out, Brazil, who many believed favourites for the World Cup despite their relentlessly poor performances, were beaten 7-1 by Germany in the semi-finals. The cutaways to crying women and children in the crowd were a real-time record of the human effects of the collapse of an implausible narrative – and brought to mind those true-life success story connoisseurs who sued Captain America-emulating dope monster Lance Armstrong for lying in his autobiography.
Why do people tie themselves in knots about narrative in sport? Sometimes I think about what sport might be like without these overarching stories of achievement and struggle. Perhaps they’re a necessary part of making professional sport – which often consists of well-matched, well-paid precision engineered athletes enthusiastically swapping shirts at half-time – more exciting. Occasionally football spills into pantomime – with your Ronaldos and your van Bommels – but generally the dullness requires a lick of paint.
Arguably the joys of this World Cup have come from the unexpected successes: the well-drilled Costa Rica, the flair of Columbia, the excellence of Algeria – even the advancement of the usually crackpot France and Holland teams. The lack of expectation surrounding all of these teams has, arguably, allowed them the freedom to flourish.
It seems typical of this World Cup that the final will be contested by Germany and Argentina, two teams whose generally unremarkable performances in the group and knockout stages – although big winners against Brazil and ten-man Portugal, Germany were heavily criticised for their cautious performances in other games – left English commentators grasping for motivation, before settling on this one: Argentina haven’t won the World Cup since ’86 while Germany haven’t since ’90. This time the big story is there is no story.
Posted by Karl Whitney