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Cup Final Glory

(by R. Lynd)

Robert Lynd (1879-1949), an English essayist. Most of his essays appeared in the New Statesman or in the News Chronicle. His characteristics are his skill in presenting an unusual point of view, his witty epigrammatic style, his humour and his appreciation of nature.


I have never caught Cup fever. I regret this, because there are few things pleasanter than to be one of an enormous crowd of human beings all suffering from contemporary blood pressure because a ball is being kicked, struck, flung or bumped with the head in this direction or the other.

I envy every partisan of Arsenal* or Newcastle United** who will be present at Wembley today, rosetted, buzzer-whirling, vociferous. I envy every young and old man who will join in that roar when the ball seems certain to fly past the goalkeeper, and in that still louder roar when, by a miracle, the goalkeeper saves.

* (Arsenal - a North London football team.)

** (Newcastle United - a football team from NE England.)

How delightful it is to be so exalted above one's ordinary self that one feels one knows more about football than the referee and that one is playing a better game in one's red-hot imagination than most of the players! I have seldom been at a football match that I did not play the game perfectly in my own head, give and take perfect passes, mark my man ruthlessly, run and tackle exactly as a perfect player would run and tackle, and avoid all the faults of which some of the players were occasionally guilty.

That is the great thing about watching football matches. One enjoys all the rapture of being a hero-worshipper, and at the same time one has the glorious satisfaction of sitting as a critic in judgement of the heroes. It is enough to give anybody a swelled head - to say nothing of blood pressure.

Even though I shall not be at Wembley today, however, and though I am feeling strangely calm considering the historic importance of the occasion, I shall, no doubt, be listening in, if the afternonoon is wet enough to keep me in the house.

T shall know who is in square 8,* and what he is doing there, and I shall feel uneasy until he is back in square 6. And all the time, my imagination will be running up and down the field, like a mad hare, in close pursuit of the ball as it zig-zags its way in lightning-flashes all over the place between goal and goal.

* (square - when matches were first described live on the B. B. C., the field of play was divided into squares. The commentator's assistant read out a number to indicate to the listeners where play was taking place.)

So I feel at present, I am in the benign mood of a philosopher who hopes that the better team will win. But, if one goal is scored, I shall soon cease to be so infernally broadminded. I shall immediately become an ardent partisan of the side that has not scored. My heart will beat faster at the mention of square one, of a corner, of So-and so's beating So-and-so and So-and-so and of his perfect pass to So-and-so, who takes a perfect shot at goal. I only wish that I could catch the real Cup fever, and then I should listen in whether the day is wet or fine.

As it is, I find it extraordinarily difficult to believe that a match between Arsenal and Newcastle United can be an event of the same earth-shaking importance as the Cup matches between my old school, the Royal Academical Institution,* and Methodist College** used to be thirty and forty years ago. Those were matches comparable in their seriousness to the wars of ancient Greece. The thought that W. E. Smyth's*** leg might not have recovered in time for the match was a torture in the brain like a prevision of defeat in battle.

* (the Royal Academical Institution and Methodist College - both are grammar schools in Belfast, Northern Ireland.)

** (Methodist College - both are grammar schools in Belfast, Northern Ireland.)

*** (W. E. Smyth - an Irish rugby player towards the end of the 19th century.)

Reading history and literature since then, I have admired many heroes, from Hector* to Stalky;** but I doubt if I ever read of any hero so superhumanly perfect as Sam Lee*** seemed to be when he scored tries**** and dropped goals***** for his side such as the world has not subsequently known.

* (Hector - a Trojan hero in classical legend.)

** (Stalky - a character in Kipling's Stalky and Co.)

*** (Sam Lee - a rugby player.)

**** (to score tries, to drop goals - terms used in rugby.)

***** (to drop goals - terms used in rugby.)

I hope the schoolboy of today has grown more chivalrous than I was at that time, for I certainly cannot remember ever having cheered a piece of good play by a player of the rival school. Football was real, football was earnest in those days. If one was a Trojan, one did not cheer Achilles.* One hated the sight of him playing well. The worse he played, indeed, - the more he fumbled the ball and the oftener he missed a tackle - the better one was pleased. At least, I was.

* (Achilles - a Greek hero who killed Hector.)

Someone has been jeering lately at the notion that games exert a powerful influence on the character. I do not know whether playing games does. Rugby football certainly makes young men very rough with each other. I am confident, however, that watching games is one of the finest moral influences of our time.

Take, for example, this business of cheering a piece of good play by the other side. It is against nature. It is as difficult as swallowing medicine in the nursery. The natural man, if left to himself, would be like a man I heard at a football match nearly forty years ago enthusiastically shouting to a player he admired, "Break his leg, John!"

Yet, by dint of the most terrific self-control, we gradually subdue the wild animal in our breasts that clamours for victory at all costs, and we train ourselves to applaud - however reluctantly, however rapidly - even the good play of an opponent whose skill has cost our side the game.

If that is not character-formation, I do not know what is.

Nobody knows how many thousand years had passed before a human being said for the first time, "May the best man win!" or cheered a player who was working like a demon for the wrong side. But it undoubtedly took a long time.

You see the result of this at Wembley and Twickenham* today - man's triumph over his natural self - every man saying, "May the better team win!" and adding under his breath: "And may the better team be mine!"

* (Wembley and Twickenham - the Rugby Union ground in Twickenham.)

(England and the English)

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