Football can beat downturn

From time to time, I become convinced that professional sport, as we know it, will cease to exist within my potential lifetime. Will decline, anyway.

The feeling usually lasts about 10 minutes, an hour tops. I got that feeling on Wednesday night. It didn’t last long then either.

Could sport die? A grip on public imagination can loosen.

The fat lady has been tuning up to call a halt to classical music for at least a century. Membership numbers of parties across Europe suggest politics is also due to finish up shortly. A few years ago, Ian McKellen blamed the standard of acting for the decline in theatre, generously overlooking the standard of plays.

It will hardly be the standard of entertainment or the skill of performers that kills sport, if it does die. That wouldn’t tally with the rise of rugby.

But emotional involvement might be more precarious. It can’t be long, anyway, before doctors advise against it. When awareness of mental well-being has never been greater — awareness, ironically, to which sporting heroes have notably contributed — it won’t be considered sustainable that people entrust the swing of their moods to events they have no control over.

Sure, they’ll find it hard to give up, same as the fags. But will unbranded tickets, stamped with health warnings, still sell out? Even now, before medical advice steps in, you sense these emotional ties growing fragile, becoming increasingly needy, demanding comparable shows of emotional investment from ever more distant heroes.

Wednesday night. Two talented young mavericks went home with a flea in their ears. “These are things we’ll talk to him about,” said San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy.

“I’ll deal with this tomorrow,” said Liverpool mananger Brendan Rodgers.

Two managers happy to shift a little heat.

On Wednesday night, I learned the Giants employ a sleep consultant, who advised them to stay in Kansas after game two of the World Series, rather than fly home immediately. Acting on the advice of my sleep consultant, I stayed up to watch the game. I was jolted awake in the sixth inning, which provided the scoring spurt that decided things, and the incident that dominated most coverage.

“There’s more passion in this World Series than in any other World Series ever played,” roared one of the commentators, as one of those schemozzles unique to baseball played out. The kind of impromptu gathering, on the field, of both benches for which the term ‘handbags’ would be far too strong.

Angry walking and glaring, is the only way to describe it.

Giants pitcher Hunter Strickland caused baseball’s idea of mayhem by first conceding four quick runs then, furious with himself, shouting something at Salvador Perez of the Royals, who looked quizzically at him, provoking a walking and glaring outbreak.

Hunter soon took a seat. He mightn’t be back in the series, his show of passion not worth much on the night. But at least the commentators could see what it meant.

It wasn’t as easy to see how much it meant to Mario Balotelli, Wednesday night.

“Apologise,” demanded the Liverpool Echo on Thursday morning after Balotelli had “insulted” the Liverpool supporters by swapping shirts with Real Madrid’s Pepe at half-time, with his side 3-0 down.

In his disrespect of the shirt, Mario had fallen foul of Jerry Seinfeld’s old gag that sports fans are cheering for laundry. “You’re actually rooting for the clothes when you get right down to it.”

For now, the needy football fan demands a show of faux respect for the laundry. They want badges kissed and shirts cherished and want to see that it means something, however modest compared to their own investment.

It is an uncomfortable relationship that brings about the kind of PR stunt we saw in Sunderland this week, when players organised to refund fans who travelled to last week’s 8-0 hiding by Southampton. The kind of gesture that emphasises, rather than bridges, a gulf.

The laundry is even more important in baseball, in the moneyball era of rented players and revolving-door rosters. But baseball is much more vulnerable than football. Baseball has to mean something because it has already lost the emotionally uninvested. Just 8% of America will watch the World Series. Nobody outside of San Francisco knows Hunter Strickland.

The sport survives now on partisan local interest, on regional cable TV deals. When Strickland throws a strop, shows how much it means, it mightn’t count for much on the night, but he’s still contributing to the bottom line.

If the laundry shrinks, baseball could die alright.

Football is better placed, having diligently prepared for a time when the emotionally invested can no longer identify with the laundry by pricing many of them out of the game already.

More importantly, it has glamour and global brands and showbiz. Real Madrid and Barca and maybe Liverpool will be watched worldwide even when true emotional investment is gone.

Best of all, it has celebrity. Football has created a bizarre spin-off publicity industry around the likes of Balotelli, who might just creep into the world’s top 100 players. Now, through declining any show of passion, Mario can do as much for football as all the walking and glaring Hunter’s passion can provoke.

Sport might die, but football will be the cockroach that survives an apocalypse.

How to get noticed: Look and learn, Mario

It is time to update the Controvassy Charter.

Obviously spitting and biting remain the foolproof options, but here is a handy guide for Mario and other players and managers seeking a few days in the limelight via non-violent means.

Perfect this list, working from the top down, and you too can soon earn the elusive “no stranger to controvassy” tag.

- One-fingered gestures towards supporters.

- Wearing gloves on a mild day.

- Hugging opposition players in the tunnel.

- Tapping players up.

- Vigorous celebrations against your old club.

- Smoking on your holidays.

- Storming down the tunnel upon being substituted.

- Criticising your players.

- Refusing to criticise your players.

- Self-consciously muted celebrations against your old club.

- Throwing off your shirt angrily upon being substituted.

- Simulation.

- Trying to get a fellow professional in trouble.

- Doing so via the brandishing of an imaginary card.

- Mind games.

- Refusing to be drawn into mind games.

- Refusing to shake hands after a game.

- Shaking hands before a game is over.

- Shirt swapping at half-time.

HEROES & VILLAINS

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

Silviu Lung: You’ll remember the Romanian keeper who Eamon Dunphy unkindly diagnosed as a sufferer of movement disorder Saint Vitas Dance because he went early for all the pens in 1990. Anyway, son Silviu Jr was in goal for Astra at Parkhead Thursday night.

Cork City and Dundalk: Whatever happened last night, having taken a close look into the abyss, neither set of fans should consider themselves losers.

HELL IN A HANDCART

Erik Lamela: Rabonas, pah. One-footedness dressed up as shaping.

Oleg Protasov: Another of Ireland’s old foes, who managed Astra in Glasgow, prompts less happy memories, having capitalised on one of George Hamilton’s deadlier ‘danger heres’ in 1988.

Drico: As alluded to on Twitter, there is something quintessentially rugger about a New York prison story remaining under wraps until it was time to cash in. Imagine if it was Robbie Keane.

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