Let me see if I got this right: the England football team unfairly lost to Russia the week before last because of a penalty that shouldn’t have been given but was; the England rugby team unfairly lost to South Africa because of a try that should have been given but wasn’t and Lewis Hamilton did not win the Formula One title in his rookie year because of a cynical conspiracy, not on the part of his closest rivals, but of two other teams who had nothing to gain or lose. Having thought all three events more or less firmly in the bag, the English media immediately went into overdrive. First of all it was agreed that, although there is a God, He must have been napping. Still that was little consolation: didn’t the Supreme Being realize that His Own Country was in need of a few miracles? There was nothing for it, the English press decided. Losing had to be declared The New Winning. This novel approach didn’t quite work for the footballers, owing to the fact that nobody, but nobody, had a good word to say about the team manager (if that is the right word) Steve McLaren. Never mind the fact that the players screwed up for all the world to see, it was the man in the overcoat sitting in the dugout who done it.
The rugby, though, now that was a different matter altogether. As holders of the World Cup -won in 2003 thanks to the flukiest of dropgoals in extra time, without which Australia would simply have taken the title- the English embarked on a four-year decline that had not yet reached its nadir when the boys flew to Paris in September. The second group match, against South Africa, was lost by a score of 36 to nothing. As luck would have it, though, some of England’s next opponents chose to play their worst rugby ever when they faced the warriors of St. George. Both Tonga and Samoa gave England plenty to do before they lost by margins small enough to send cheers round the Pacific. But then. Australia failed to get revenge for the 2003 fiasco and lost 12-10 (a result happily described in more that one English newspaper as ‘a hammering’). France, after a poor start to the tournament recovered enough to edge past hot favourites New Zealand in the quarter finals, a feat that must have so excited them that their minds, when it came to the semi final against England, had gone walkabout. The rest is too recent for us to need reminding of: the South Africans dominated the final and won deservedly: Rugby Players 15, Bonecrushers 6. The next day the English Sunday newspapers went to town: OK so the Springboks won. But what a plucky England eh? What total commitment, what courage and application! If only that perfectly good English try had not been disallowed, what a different outcome we would have seen! The Sunday Times, quite apart from devoting thirteen full pages of its sports section to the final, firing off headlines like “It’s Over”, “Brave England Go Down With Pride” and “Vintage 2007: A Surprising Red And White”, forensically examined every nanosecond of the game in search of ego-boosting evidence,of which, apart from the result, there was plenty. Winning? That’s for wimps.
But if that left a bit of a strange taste in the non-English mouth, what followed on Sunday was unsporting cynicism of such unvarnished obviousness that it made me feel decidedly queasy. In Brazil, a stormy Formula One season was drawing to a close, with three drivers still in with a chance of the title. Best placed was Lewis Hamilton a 22-year old rookie and protege of the McLaren stable, who took them under their wing when he was only thirteen. A massive talent, everybody will agree. The problem was that Hamilton (an Englishman) joined McLaren (an English constructor) at the same time that Fernando Alonso (a Spaniard and twice World Champion with French constructor Renault) also joined McLaren (an English constructor). Add to the mix an English public so starved of sporting success (see above) that they promoted a young boy to the status of deity and it was obvious: a season of rivalry, conflict and skulduggery lay ahead. Well, we’ve all seen what that can lead to. Unsavoury goings on, not only within the McLaren team but also involving archrivals Ferrari. A low point was the unedifying spying scandal, which led to McLaren being thrown out of the constructors’ championship with 0 points. Other incidents gave the uninvolved observer more to smile about, such as the pit lane kerfuffle between Hamilton and Alonso, and the safety car hijinks in Japan. But these little nagging incidents fade into nothingness when compared with the stunt McLaren boss Ron Dennis pulled on the last day of the season. Yes, he had rather obviously favoured Hamilton over Alonso all year. Yes, his underlings had snaffled secrets from Ferrari, through the good offices of (ex-) Ferrari man Nigel Stepney (an Englishman). Yes, his team had, at some crucial junctions, made bad mistakes (letting Hamilton drive on with a ruined back tyre in China, illegally using two sets of rain tyres during practice in Brazil are two that spring to mind). But Dennis saved the worst (or the best, depending on your passport) for last. As the race started, a rush of blood to Hamilton’s head saw him off the track and thrown back to eighth place. No bad luck, just Hamilton’s own doing. Bad luck did come for Hamilton later in the race when, on two occasions, his car slowed down letting others whizz past him and throwing him well back in the field. Not one to give up easily he fought his way back to seventh and there he stayed, unable to clinch place 5, which would have won him the title. Hard cheese! Oddly enough, Lewis took things quite well, limiting himself to vowing that next year will be different…and why not? But there, amidst the cheering throng, was Ron Dennis, the McLaren team boss. Interviewed on the track just after Raikkonen’s win he spoke sadly but gallantly saying, and I quote: “We must be sporting about this.” How sporting he intended to be became clear very soon after, when news broke that McLaren had lodged an official complaint against the Williams and BMW teams, accusing them of using fuel of an illegal low temperature. My first reaction was: ‘how do they know?’ Were there McLaren spies with thermometers standing by as BMW and Williams refueled their cars? My second reaction was: “what a strange coincidence that the teams accused were precisely those that kept Hamilton from advancing to a title-winning position.” For all I know, quite a few minnows in Formula One might have used this heinous trick to gain an extra few horsepower: Spyker certainly could have done with it, or else Super Agurri or Toyota. But no, the only culprits, in the McLaren view, were the cars that stood in Hamilton’s way. Not Ferrari, that would have been too obvious. Unsurprisingly, the race stewards threw the case out. McLaren’s two drivers, Alonso and Hamilton, both came out against their team’s decision, arguing that winning a world title on a trumped-up technicality would devalue the championship. All this was apparently lost on Ron Dennis, whose appeal against the stewards’ decision will be judged on the 15th of November. Sport at its worst…or should I say: at its most English?