Did you feel that, sports fans? Last weekend something remarkable happened. The sporting universe shifted off its axis and simultaneously returned to its natural state. Within the space of a few hours, two sporting giants travelled in opposite directions from the norm: one towards its rightful place in the cosmos, the other into an alternate realm where nothing makes sense. I’m talking about Manchester United Football Club and the Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby union team.
When Marcus Rashford, the 18-year-old wonder kid from Wythenshawe, England, tapped in a 92nd minute winner against Hull City last Saturday, you could almost hear a faint click as the world around us slotted back into place.
“Rashford’s late winner was like the Manchester United of old,” beamed The Sun. Rio Ferdinand and Paul Scholes, two legends at the club who won 14 titles together at Old Trafford, gushed on BT Sport about how this United team under new manager Jose Mourinho was a throwback to a glorious past. They seemed to suggest that it was not merely the glory days that were returning, but that some divine score had been resettled.
As the sun rises in one part of the globe, so it sets in another, and 10,733km away in the Argentinean city of Salta, a once mighty power of the sports world was revealed for the average entity that it has now become. The Springboks, the crack of doom name for fans of the All Blacks of New Zealand, the Wallabies of Australia and the Roses of England, lost to Argentina (24-26) in Argentina for the first time in their celebrated history.
There have been a lot of firsts recently. In June the Boks lost to Ireland (20-26) at home for the first time. In August at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, they lost for the first time to minnows Japan (32-34), and a month earlier they lost for the first time at home to Argentina (25-37).
Much has been said about the dramatic decline of the Springboks. Seasoned rugby scribe, Gavin Rich, described the team as being in a state of “free-fall” while fellow writer Mark Keohane has said that the loss in Salta “wasn’t a surprise”, calling out the coaching staff for a perceived lack of experience. The most damning indictment of all came from former head coach Nick Mallet:
“We shouldn’t be surprised, given what we have been served up so far this year,” Mallet said in his capacity as a TV pundit on SuperSport after the loss. “You can’t carry on being passionate about the Springboks. Just because you put a Springbok jersey over your head, you think you are going to go and beat Argentina away. That’s just not happening any more. ”
And therein lies the source of all the lamentations heard throughout the Republic. Expectations are premeditated resentments, as the Good Book says. The source of all this anguish is not that the Springboks are losing, but that they are failing to meet the expectations placed on them by a delusional fan base.
No matter the sporting climate that they exist in, certain teams command a preordained right to win. That is why four wins from four matches, including a “trademark” last gasp victory, for Manchester United is seen as a return to the good old days rather than the tiny data set that it really is. When evaluating a team’s place in the world, sports fans seldom use logic and reason when hubris and pretence will do just fine.
During sporting isolation as a result of the oppressive apartheid regime, the average sports fan in South Africa could not contemplate a world outside of the nation’s borders. Clashes between the Blue Bulls of Pretoria and the Sharks of Durban was as good as it got. This was the pinnacle. Fans packed stadiums around the land to capacity while the players, immortalised by those with long enough memories, played with a passion and determination now solely reserved for international matches.
Whenever a breathtaking try was scored or a monstrous hit waylaid an opponent, the general assumption was that if these juggernauts were unleashed on the world, no Aussie or Kiwi alive would be able to withstand the might of the Springbok. This mindset was not entirely borne of overt patriotism but was somewhat supported by history.
Before isolation, the Springboks were the best side on the planet. Before 1992, South Africa played New Zealand in 37 Tests and beat them 20 times with two draws for a win rate of 54%. They enjoyed an even greater dominance over Australia, beating them 21 times in 28 Tests for a win rate of 75%.
When isolation hit, these memories lingered and the myth of the all-conquering Springbok endured. When the 1987 and 1991 World Cups, won by New Zealand and Australia respectively, passed by, the general sentiment in South Africa was that had the Boks been there, they would have won.
This feeling was only heightened when South Africa won the 1995 World Cup at the first time of asking. At the closing dinner of the tournament, the former President of South African Rugby, the late Louis Luyt, proclaimed, “There were no true world champions in the 1987 and 1991 World Cups because South Africa was not there.” His comments led to the New Zealand, English and French teams walking out of the venue.
The myth endures, but as Mallet suggests, it is built on air. Since that famous victory in 1995, the Springboks have not been as successful against their old foes. In 48 Tests against the Wallabies, the Boks have only won 22. Against the All Blacks it’s even worse with just 14 wins from 47 Tests. That’s 45% and 29% respectively. Since the most famous day in South African sport’s history, the mighty Springboks have lost more games than they’ve won against their two main rivals. Despite the facts, fans demand victory in almost every game.
Keohane once called South African rugby fans “dummies” and described them as the “brandy and coke brigade”. Like indoctrinated zealots, these loyalists continue to live life with blinkers on; steadfast in the belief that defeat is an unnatural state of being for their beloved team. The ref hates us, it’s the coach’s fault, there’s too much politics in sport, the sun was in their eyes; a myriad excuses and scapegoats without acknowledging the simple truth that, despite intermittent triumphs that include the 2007 World Cup and the 2009 British and Irish Lions tour, the Springboks have not been world beaters for a long time.
After the loss to Ireland, Times Live’s Craig Ray stated that the Springboks had lost their aura of intimidation and that good teams no longer feared them. The opposite is being said about Manchester United and Mourinho who has been credited with returning the fear factor to Old Trafford.”
“Fear factor” is an overused throwaway term. Sure, teams don’t fear the Springboks, and yes, Manchester United’s opponents are a lot more concerned about them this season, but has anyone stopped to take into account the impact the players and tactics have on these impressions? A competitive sports match, with the odd upset, is generally won by the better team.
This does not stop fans and even administrators from upholding the immaterial status quo. Recently, UEFA (European football’s governing body) toyed with the idea of granting wildcard places in the Champions League group stages to historically successful teams regardless of whether or not they actually qualified.
This season’s group stage will not feature Manchester United, Chelsea, AC Milan, Inter Milan or Liverpool; past winners with a global fan base who have significant historical clout in the competition. If these teams were simply granted access to Europe’s top competition by virtue of what they had achieved in the past, they would be taking the place of teams who deserve to be there on merit.
Naturally, Inter Milan’s chief executive, Michael Bolingbroke, sees the logic in the idea, citing “TV income distribution” as a reason why his side, who have failed to qualify since 2012, should be granted automatic access to the competition. This view is supported by Barcelona’s president, Josep Maria Bartomeu and AC Milan’s director, Umberto Gandini.
In these discussions, no mention has been made of Nottingham Forest who won back-to-back titles in 1978 and 1979 or of Ajax Amsterdam who have won the title four times. Clearly a club’s historical pedigree must coincide with its ability to drive TV revenues.
At the heart of all of this is arrogance. Winning and competing should never be taken for granted as history counts for nothing once the whistle blows. The grand narrative of world sport is constantly ebbing and flowing. There are no guarantees. Fans of Manchester United, the Springboks and anyone else for that matter would do well to remember that. DM
Photo: A South African rugby fan invades the pitch during a 2015 World Cup clash with Samoa at Villa Park, Birmingham, England. Image supplied by Action Images/Peter Cziborra.
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An Oxford University study established that highly religious people and atheists are the least afraid of death.