Sport

Victory from defeat from victory: what we can learn from Manchester City

By Richard Poplak 14 May 2012

Sometimes we watch a sporting activity undertaken by spoiled multimillionaires and think: what does this say about real life? What’s the take-home, the lesson, the quid pro quo? To make sense of the 2011/2012 season of the Barclays Premier League, it seems we must lift the veils of history. But history, for its part, is playing coy. By a nonplussed RICHARD POPLAK.

History repeats itself. But then, so does your mother in-law, and it doesn’t make her an oracle.

I’ve always found the above cliché more of a bromide than a warning: don’t worry, it’s all happened before! Relax, look at the literature, and you’ll find a cogent and illuminating example of, say, the Richard Mdluli affair in Shakespeare. A mirthless Falstaff, maybe. Or Lady Macbeth.

But it isn’t that simple. Sometimes, stuff happens that really hasn’t happened before. And this is where the internet promises so much but delivers so little. The promise is of a staggering collective memory. If humanity has been, as science fiction writer William Gibson suggests, an eons-long project of building prosthetic memory, then the internet has the potential to be its perfect incarnation. Alongside endless updates on the Kardashians and terabytes of cute kitten photos, it is also our one genuine shot at connecting disparate pieces of knowledge, building a web of erudition, and accumulating a possibly godlike intelligence.

The delivery is a little different, though: that kind of cohesion simply hasn’t happened. So in the absence of a comprehensive human memory, we have football as the presiding metaphor. And it’s no mean challenge, making sense of the newly-dead season, won – or rather, not lost – by Manchester City, a half-a-billion pound team cobbled together by ego, talent and money. A grand experiment in buying a major trophy which – surprise! – reminds us that money will buy you anything. That is, of course, the first and most important thing that Manchester City teaches us about life. But we live in South Africa, so we already knew that. “We have the best government money can buy,” Mark Twain once wrote. We hear you, brother.

The second lesson? When one watches a match like the now-classic Manchester City vs. Queens Park Rangers, in which the Mancunian monsters had to, absolutely had to, beat a team threatened with relegation in order to win the league and vanquish cross-town rivals Manchester United, one positively begs for historical precedent. The Big Game. The Must-Win. Pressure. Where have we seen this before?

The game plays out in a space that is part real world, part dream world – a hyper-reality in which the rules of the universe are simultaneously subverted and confirmed. Yes, the rich guys are winning, aren’t winning, should win, do win – but that they come so cataclysmically close to blowing it? This is what we define as “hope”, the essential component of being human.

And still, we strain for precedent, beg for it. We think: Napoleon in Russia? Hitler in the same? No, it doesn’t quite do it. For one thing, Napoleon was much taller than Carlos Tevez, and for another, parallels between the Nazis and teams from Manchester are simply too overdone. Is there anything in Roman history that provides a clue? Maybe – but who has the time to read through all of Edward Gibbon in order to parse what happened at City’s Etihad Stadium?

Here’s what we do know: we witnessed a sure victory, followed by an implosion. This has happened many times before, followed by an improbable surge and the snatching of victory from defeat, from which victory had already been snatched only forty-five minutes before. That isn’t history, it’s calculus. How are we to make sense of this? What does it tell us about life?

Well, life is precarious. Even if you have a Sheikh Mansour’s oil billions at your disposal, the outcome is never quite written. And we live in precarious times. By December, this country will either have a new president, or it will be the same guy pulling another rabbit out of another hat. The United States will either have a new president, or it will be the same guy and his team coming up with another winning marketing campaign. China will have a new leader. Egypt will have a new leader. The list goes on.

Where history abandons us, sport picks up the slack. It may break our hearts – poor Manchester City fans, weeping in the stands as QPR scored a second goal – and the game may be rigged (QPR, reduced to ten men by the improbable burst  by the former Manchester City player, does seem like the work of an angry phone call from Abu Dhabi). But in the moment, a great match tells us all we need to know: anything can happen. Although it certainly helps when you stack the deck in your favour, spend as much money as you can, and kick the ball at the net.

We know this. We’re born with this knowledge. We don’t need ancient Rome or the internet to remind us of it. All we need is a klatch of overpaid, faux-hawked babies who can handle themselves on a football field. Where literature fails, sport steps in.

“Wisely and slow,” wrote the Bard, “they stumble who run fast.” Not so much. DM



Read more:

Blue skies over Manchester as City win Premier League at last in the Guardian.

Photo: Manchester City’s Micah Richards (R) and Nigel De Jong celebrate winning the English Premier League following their soccer match against Queens Park Rangers at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, northern England, May 13, 2012. REUTERS/Darren Staples.

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