Monday, 27 June 2011

The Two Faces of Sporting Schadenfreude

Nick Hornby commented in the quite brilliant Fever Pitch about the 'cruel clarity' that makes competitive sport so compelling, "there is no such thing as a bad hundred metre runner who got lucky" is as appropriate a sentence as any around which one may wish to wrap their appreciation of the finality of sporting contests. Yes, it is true that the league table does not lie, and no there is no substitute for results. So with that in mind, those involved with River Plate have an awful lot of self-examination on their hands as they contemplate their first ever season in Argentina's B Division in a glittering history which includes 33 National Championships, 2 Copa Libertadores triumphs and an Intercontinental Cup success, when they defeated Steaua Bucharest to become recognised as the best club side on the planet in 1986.

The most baffling aspect of River's shocking decline is that it has taken place in a domestic structure which really ought to load the dice in their favour. Relegation is calculated not on the points tally of the recently completed season, but is instead decided by a mean average across three years of domestic football. This of course gives the likes of River and Boca Juniors the bonus life of one potentially terrible season, safe in the knowledge that as long as it is followed by two half-decent ones then there is no immediate cause for panic.

That a club the size of River have contrived to put together two disastrous terms followed by a slight improvement in the third defies logic in many ways, and underlines that there can be no doubt whatsoever about the merit of their demotion to the second tier. A chronic lack of goals in the second half of the current campaign dragged them into the danger zone and an eventual playoff with Belgrano Cordoba - a 2-0 reverse in the away leg was followed by a return match in which a penalty miss left the scores at 1-1 and River were comprehensively beaten.

While Belgrano can look forward to a return to the top flight after a five year absence, the current crop of River players will have to live with the unwanted tag of being the first to lose the Buenos Aires giants' Primera Division status, fifteen years to the day of their last Copa Libertadores victory. The angry demonstrations of supporters, who then had to be water-cannoned away from the ground by police, were the embodiment of frustration at a spiral of financial crises, the sale of the club's best players and subsequent failure on the field.

South American club soccer may not be what it once was in an age where the best players invariably see the major European Leagues as a path to professional and financial success. More than 1,000 Argentinians currently play in a recognised league somewhere other than home, but the names of clubs like River, Boca Juniors and Independiente still hold something in the form of international currency. Fans of the other two, who can at least boast more domestic titles than River between them, will no doubt be of the view that Christmas has come six months early. After all, nobody does Schadenfreude quite like a football fan.

As neutrals, most of us would tend to support the underdog in one-off matches such as a domestic cup competition. When a small and unfashionable club achieves feats thought to be beyond the limit of their reasonable aspiration, it is common for supporters of bigger fish to adopt them almost as a second team, wishing them well in all but two matches of the current campaign. The flipside of this is that of course, practically everybody enjoys watching a so-called giant of the sport falling flat on their collective faces. Leeds United have never enjoyed much love from neutrals as it is, and so their relegation from the Premier League in 2004 (followed by a drop to the third tier three years later) was met by many with a mix of wild celebration, scorn and ridicule. Likewise Newcastle United, a club thought by most to be massive only in the heads of their own supporters, did not receive much in the way of sympathy when it was their turn to fall through the trapdoor in 2009.

In many ways, this agony of the previously successful is one of the best aspects of competitive sport. To return to Hornby's point, its outcomes are usually just (especially if they are based on three seasons instead of one!!). Idiosyncrasies such as Blackpool and Wigan Athletic operating at a higher level than Leeds last season serve to illustrate that in much the way as justice at least should be, the clunk of the sporting gavel holds no respect for a man's past achievements, fame, name recognition or reputation.

A friend of mine is a long distance runner, and the clear cut and meritocratic sphere in which he operates sometimes leaves me dying of jealousy. In a world where the professional futures of so many are dependant upon the personal view of one deeply flawed individual, the sight of big fish succumbing to the relative plankton of the any sport tugs at an idealistic heartstring somewhere that I think or at least hope most of us possess. Nobody is held back from achieving the most that they can with the means available to them, and similarly there is no protection for any competitor, regardless of size or stature, from the consequences of prolonged failure. We just need a reminder of this every now and then to maintain our faith in whatever game it is we love, and the relegation of River, akin to a club like Arsenal falling out of the Premier League, will keep people believing for the time being.

However, after a while something else takes over, even amongst those supporting the most fierce rivals of whoever has fallen from grace. The fun wears off, perhaps after a season or two, and it actually becomes quite sad to see a familiar name in an unfamiliar place. Almost everyone bar their own supporters smiled at the freefalls of Leeds and others in the previous decade, but then there comes a point where, in the words of a great man, "that joke isn't funny anymore". Followers of rival teams of roughly equal size begin to notice the absence of two big occasions on the calendar, realising that the greatest satisfaction comes from seeing your own side get one over on them.

Naturally, bragging rights tend to mean a great deal more when they have just been taken on the field of play, rather than by glancing at a newspaper and reminding oneself that the club with whom your own holds a natural antipathy occupies a lower division. River Plate were relegated on merit because they were pretty useless over a sustained period of time, and with an 85% reduction in television revenues on the horizon, a fire sale may become a necessity in the summer. As a result, escaping from the second tier at the first attempt may prove more difficult than one would first imagine. However, should they begin the 2012-13 season outside the Primera Division, will fans of Boca in particular want their Superclassico back more than they might wish their biggest rivals to fail?


  1. " such thing as a bad 100 metre runner who got lucky" what about Linford Christy? He only managed to win when there was no decent competition. Ben Johnson, he was the best. They should never have disqualified him. Just because he took a few drugs. I would have thought that you libertarians would have approved of drugs in sport. If you are prepared to take the risk why not fill yer boots. I used to be a woman until I joined the East German netball team.

  2. Interesting point VT - Linford's 9.96 secs in Barcelona would only have been worth silver in 1988 and fourth place in Atlanta in 1996 - so while it is by no means a bad time, he would not have won gold with it in either the previous or following Olympics.

    The likes of Fredericks, Mitchell and Burrell who operated circa 1992 were not in the Carl Lewis league but then prior to the last few years who was?

    A very good athlete who was the best in the world at the time, but not a great one - didn't do enough against other great athletes to make that particular mark IMO.

    Johnson was actually World Record holder prior to the Seoul games with a 9.83 he set in a meet in 1987 - Lewis was always of the view Johnson was getting outside help as he'd gone from an average sprinter to a world record holder in 12 months.

    It might just be for the best to let them get on with it and he with the best steroids/nandralone wins. To complete this particular loop, Johnson attempted a comeback and came last in Christie's semi-final race in Barcelona in 1992. He was busted for steroids again soon afterwards and banned for life.

    On the subject of East German athletes - an East German 'woman' who cleaned up at weightlifting in the 60s immediately retired after routine 'gender tests' were introduced (ie just hitch it up so we can make sure there's nothing there) - so the natural, though never proven assumption, was that this was actually a bloke.

    Many East German athletes talked later of suffering nervous breakdowns and mental illness as a result of the chemicals their coaches used to ply them with. Tragically, there were suicides too.

  3. Good post Daz. Maybe one day you could turn your hand to explaining how the hell Manchester United were relegated in the 70s.

    My libertarian view on drugs in sport is that all people should be free to take whatever drugs they want as long as they bear the consequences. Sports would set their own rules and it would be self regulating as my theory is that the less pure a sport becomes the less people are interested. i.e.I used to love watching the Tour de France however since the drug scandals I have not watched it once. The same dynamics occur in sports where gambling scandals occur and you cannot rely on the result being fair.

  4. Evenin MNN - it's gone a bit mad on here in the last hour or so.

    Man United's European Cup wunning team got old together, Besty retired due to his personal issues and some of the guys who came in to replace them weren't up to it. Also, successive managers found it impossible to follow Matt Busby, and the rest is history - Dennis Law's little back-heel, which he didn't celebrate, and United were a goner.

    Maybe I'll do something a bit longer - I'll re-read the biography of United as a club which I have at home then talk to the dad of one of my pals, who was a United hooligan in the 70s...

    Sports should set their own rules Ric, I would naturally agree with that. The question is, are competitors constantly getting ahead of the drug testers, who are reactively banning stuff that has been winning fights or races for people? Could the governing bodies of sports end up admitting that their war on drugs is lost, rather like that of society as a whole?