How Much to Distract a Writer?

I’m trying to write. No really. Seriously. Don’t look at me like that. I know it may not look like it but, inside this lump of bone, plots are being sketched by my gelatinous gloop of neurons, characters developed and moved around by neurotransmitters and synapses are firing with story arcs. Oh that was close! No, I can multitask. (I can’t, no one can, of any gender, they just do everything badly) I mean it’s only football isn’t it?

I don’t even like football and its 10 o’clock in the morning for goodness sake, but my son (let’s blame him, he can’t argue on here) has put Switzerland vs Cameroon on the television. I’m like a cat with a ball of string, it knows it can’t eat it but it still can’t ignore that prey response. Moving object plus thin dangly bit behind equals mouse, never mind it smells wrong doesn’t squeak and tastes horrible. I don’t know what mice taste like by the way but my cat seems to like them, at least the faces which appears to be the bit he eats mostly.

I like rugby union, well I did before the changes in the game to accommodate professionalism moved it increasingly towards a low attention span game, like rugby league or basketball. But football never got me. Or I never got it. Being sent off at school from flattening my mate who kept going past me probably started the rot. Frustrating. When I went to senior school and was introduced to a game that positively encouraged knocking down people with the ball, I was a lot happier.

I still played a bit of football, training for rugby, work five asides, kickabouts with mates, that sort of thing but my heart was never in it. The most fun I had was with my son in the park playing football, long after I had given up rugby, but that had a different vibe to it altogether. He’s my son; I’d have done synchronised swimming if he’d been into that.

But World Cups bring out something else, and the sheer unpredictability of what is supposed to be a bit of a breeze for the big teams in the group stages has been intriguing this year. Saudi beating Argentina saw me doing triple takes when my son told me, and I confess I reached for the internet to check it wasn’t a massive windup.

Rugby seldom does that. Occasionally in the past a team few had heard of like Western Samoa emerged to cause an upset, it felt like usually to Wales. Think what the whole of Samoa would do boys! Well we found out and it wasn’t pretty. Unfortunately for Samoa, economics kicked in with the professionalisation of the game and Samoa is back to being an also ran team as the rest of the rugby world pits its South Sea Islanders against everyone else’s South Sea Islanders. Can’t blame Samoans, Fijians and Tongans for wanting to exchange physical prowess for family security but the diaspora has shown vividly what happens when Capitalism drives labour migration. Teams like Cote d’Ivoire in the past and Portugal coming up may entertain for a game or two but mostly you fear for their safety and a repetition of Max Brito’s horrendous injuries in the 1995 World Cup.

But I shouldn’t be bothered about rugby or football. I’m supposed to be writing about an eighteenth century retired British Army officer pompously recounting his memoirs in comedic fashion. Maradonna’s ‘hand of God’ aka cheating bastard handball is going to be difficult to work convincingly into that narrative. Although cheats and chancers abound in eighteenth century military affairs.

Distraction is easy at the best of times, but wall to wall football seems to be impossible to ignore. It’s that rolling ball effect that snags the cat’s attention. People running, chasing a little rolling object seem impossible to ignore. I like watching Wales, sort of, though why they only played for half a match last time out defeated me. They are on again at 1000 tomorrow but there are four games televised between now and then.

It will be the nineteenth century by the time I return to the comedy Battle of Minden at this rate.

Hey ho, what’s the score?

About $229Billion. Billion! At the last count. That’s a lot of dosh to distract a writer of an homage to Brigadier Gerard.

Corinthian spirit?

This is definitely about ‘Stuff’ and not writing – but it is writing about stuff.

I played rugby. Not brilliantly. I didn’t like it much at school until it stopped being compulsory and became a choice. As soon as it did, I loved it. I had a lot of ground to make up, but I was keen. I used to sneak back in for after school rugby training, having first sneaked out of school for a free afternoon.

My playing days are long gone. When I sat down to add up exactly how long, I was shocked to discover it was 20 years since I last graced (as if) a rugby pitch in anger. I didn’t want to become one of those people who hung around club houses imitating the Ancient Mariner, stopping one of three and telling them what a great player I had been, and how the game wasn’t what is was in my day. So I went off to do other things. I still watch however.

The game has changed of course. It is both the curse and the glory of Rugby Union that its administrators are dedicated Maoists. Committed to perpetual revolution, hardly a season goes by, without a law change or at least a major re-interpretation of existing directives. But the main change has been professionalism. I don’t have any moral qualms about this. I do have some practical concerns about where it is leading the attitudes of some in the game and the undermining of certain basic tenets of the game’s ethos as a whole.

Referees were sacrosanct in rugby (both codes). You didn’t get the verbal onslaught that football referees have to put up with, nor the jostling, pushing, and outright occasional violence against officials that mars professional football. Touch a rugby union referee and it was automatically a ban. The length of which depended on the scale of the touch. But it almost never happened. I can think of one incident I watched where a player, accidentally he claimed, pushed a referee. He received a lengthy ban.

There were feedback channels of course to ensure referees were up the mark. There were reports back to the referees’ societies. There were the winks and nods and old boys’ networks that sorted the wheat from the chaff. With professionalism it seemed that Rugby stole another march on football, professionalising its top tiers of refs as well as players.

But slowly that respect, that adamantine, unbroken front of ‘the referee’s decision is final’ has been eroded. In some cases this has been sold as technological improvement. The TMO system in rugby is excellent and helps get the right decisions on tries and foul play. Relieved of time keeping, now in the hands of officials off the pitch in major matches, the referee now has only the game action to consider. The redesignation of touch judges as assistant referees allow him to have eyes in the back of his head.

But alongside this there has been a growing niggling on and off the pitch. There has been a deliberate advocacy for players, not just captains now, to ‘coach’ the ref through the game, to ‘manage’ him. This means a barrage of questioning of his decisions, suggestion about what he should do with opposition players, appeals for penalties, yellow cards and sendings off. This has been encouraged, as a means of interaction with players, who are no longer amateur volunteers who had to suck it up, but who are now well paid professionals who think they are worth ever more and don’t have to submit to impartial decisions. So far so bad. But coaches who once would have known better and would have been in severe trouble with the RFU, WRU, SRU etc etc are now whining about referees in public. After a recent west country derby, always a heated affair the referee was harshly criticised publicly in the press by both coaches. I make no comment about the match. I didn’t see it. I don’t need to. I know I don’t want to read in the national press the heated comments of men whose livelihood rests on the matter undermining the authority and integrity of officials. If they have legitimate grievances: follow the procedures.

The problem of course is in the last sentence: their livelihood. The RFU in England let the vested interests of big money clubs undermine and overrule years of authority. I am as much an iconoclast as anyone but I winced when the Premiership clubs got together and challenged the ‘Old Farts’ of the RFU. They got a laugh from their caricature, but at the same time masked the transfer of power from officials with a sense of commitment to the game as a cultural icon, to businessmen whose bottom line was the bottom line.

When it’s a game, you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same. When it’s a business, disaster necessitates scorn being poured on someone and it is the coach, under pressure of losing his job, who passes the buck on, to players, who are of course the ones actually with destiny in their own hands, and now it seems to referees.

The public castigation of officials is only the symptom of the wider malaise of course. Once money became the reason to play sport, attitudes were bound to change. I am suspicious of harking back to a golden Corinthian age. Sport has always had its darker side, but the idea used to be that we generally tried to eliminate that as much as possible and emphasise the benefits. Business is more win at all costs. It was what we worried about when the game went professional. Wilier hands grabbed the reins and abandoned the ethos that made the game great. It took a bit longer for the pay off to materialise than some of us feared, but it has arrived.