Sport needs its standard bearers

TO my mind, sporting folklore has concerned itself too often with the underdog.

Plucky no-hoper defies the odds. Small-town school makes it to State. Washed-up veteran gets one more shot.

David has always sold more popcorn than Goliath. Schmaltz trumps consistency at the box office.

All a little disrespectful of the great champions, if you ask me. Every dog might have his day, but Goliath must do it every day.

So my Tin Cup would have hailed Peter Jacobsen for finally breaking Roy McAvoy on the 18th. My Cool Runnings concentrates on the Swiss. My Rocky acclaims Apollo Creed for overcoming complacency to hang onto his title.

Box office bust perhaps, but the importance of standards acknowledged.

To give the everyday minutiae of sport any meaning at all we need our eras, our reigns, our standard bearers. Otherwise, all sport becomes a series of random outcomes. Sorry Motty, the Crazy Gang cannot always beat the Culture Club. We need Sampras and Federer. We need Davis and Hendry. We need Kilkenny, AC Milan, Phil Taylor, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Muhammad Ali, Michael Johnson.

And we badly need the Barcelona team that will probably retain its World Club Championship title tomorrow and add to its binge of success under Pep Guardiola’s leadership.

There is something beautifully fragile about an era of sporting dominance that trumps any number of lucky punches, particularly in a team sport. None more so than Barcelona’s.

Pep’s is an ongoing chemistry experiment. The physical supremacy their game demands must be constantly dulled by the extra appointments success adds to their diary. The playing style insists that selfless teamwork coexists with thrilling individualism, that egos must link arms without jostling. The year-on-year rejuvenation means the weakest animal must be unsentimentally abandoned, without upsetting the herd. Most of all, they have to maintain that unfathomable, burning need to do it all again tomorrow.

When a 17-year-old kid walked up to one-time Mr Universe Steve Michalik and begged for help, he swore he wanted to lift big more than anything in the world. Michalik relented, invited the lad to a 6am session, then shoved his head beneath the surface of a swimming pool for maybe 45 seconds, yanked it up, then repeated the dose.

“When you want the title as bad as you wanted that last f**king breath, then and only then can you come talk to me.”

Despite all the titles, Barcelona still play football as if oxygen has been denied them. That they also play it as magnificently as anyone has ever managed is something of a bonus.

Make a film out of that.

But what makes sporting dynasties so much more gripping than one-off giant killings is the certainty that, one day, they will end. We just don’t know when. Like a doomed love affair, the tipping point invariably becomes obvious only when it’s much too late for roses.

Looking back, with clear distance, at a curtain falling, Pete Sampras remembered how he felt around the time a 19-year-old Roger Federer ended his 31-match streak at Wimbledon.

“Guys were closing in on me; my appetite for daily combat was diminishing.”

Pete, being Pete, realised what was happening in time, sacked his coach and managed one more triumph over Agassi in 2002. “I was searching for those last bits of greatness in me.”

But champions often go quietly in the end. And in these hysterical times of snap judgments, we are sometimes keen to load the casket when the corpse is full of life.

That’s what many were trying to do last Saturday night. There will come a time, after the reign has ended, when the way to beat Barcelona will seem the most obvious thing in the world. For 20 minutes or so at the Bernabéu, we had a taste of what that day will be like after Jose Mourinho’s full-court press immediately squeezed a howler from Victor Valdez. Briefly, Catalan rhythm was fractured and you wondered if the day had come so soon.

Instead, Barcelona and Guardiola responded the way great champions do — they adjusted but refused to change.

Sure Alves advanced, Puyol shunted, Busquets and Messi withdrew. But if solutions were found, principles weren’t sacrificed. They picked through the press until the tide turned, with Valdez, notably, refusing to let embarrassment influence his pass selection.

Long before the end, Real Madrid were an exhausted rabble, rocked back on their heels by a bid to go toe to toe.

“In life you have to choose to be brave or very brave,” reflected Guardiola after what can rank among their finest hours. It’s the kind of courage an underdog can never truly know.

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