Over the past six days, three events have pushed the boundaries once more and proved yet again that sport can be all conquering and consuming with its unique power. Its effect can be mindblowing.
Frankie welcomed us to the pleasure dome which, in their world, was one where lovers roam. Yet sport has its own pleasure domes, which come in many shapes, sizes and ages.
On Saturday in the modern Ricoh Arena in Coventry, Wasps played host to Exeter Chiefs in the quarter final of the European Rugby Cup. A massive match, high in intensity, where the prize was huge. A clash of styles in a brutal encounter where it looked like Exeter were heading for victory. But Wasps came storming back, their never-say-die approach culminating in an extraordinary try which began with a daring counter attack from beneath their own posts. Then, as the clock ticked to zero, with the crowd on its feet screaming and urging them on, Wasps swung the ball to the right and Charles Piutau dived over in the corner.
The stadium erupted but the drama did not and could not end there. That try only gave Wasps a chance to win, they needed the conversion to seal victory. Raucous elation to hushed silence in a few moments as Jimmy Gopperth stepped up, from way out on the touchline in front of the Exeter supporters. Cometh the hour, cometh the man as Gopperth, under the most unbelievable pressure, struck the ball high and as he raised his arms aloft, the ball sailed between the posts. Cue pandemonium in the stadium on the pitch as he was swamped by his wide-eyed ecstatic team mates.
In his report in the Sunday Times the following day, esteemed rugby correspondent Stephen Jones, described it as the greatest club rugby match he had ever seen. We can all be accused of hyperbole in the immediate aftermath of a dramatic match and only when the dust settles can we really compare like with like, but anyone who witnessed this will concur that it really was a most exhilarating match and a finale to match anything they had ever seen before.
Fast forward one day to the hallowed turf of the Augusta National in Georgia, an iconic venue steeped in history, where arguably the most coveted prize in golf was on offer. Again, as the final group of players reached the turn and began their journey over the final nine holes, it seemed as though the tournament had already been won. Last year’s champion, Jordan Spieth, the Texan, was five shots clear and moving inexorably towards another green jacket, albeit without the calmness and measured golf of his immaculate performance in 2015. All the same, it seemed as good as over, the game was surely up.
But sport has this ‘x’ factor, a degree of uncertainty that holds our attention. Maybe that’s part of the power and the attraction of sport too? The fascination of not knowing the final outcome, even when it has seemingly already been decided. Many of those in the UK viewing late on Sunday evening would have been contemplating ‘turning in’, an early night compared to the midnight hour of a usual Masters’ Sunday. Yet with a few ‘Brits’ still in contention on the leader board and Speith still to play the treacherous holes at the notorious Amen Corner, there was just about enough doubt to question the final result.
What subsequently happened was quite extraordinary as Speith, after already bogeying both the tenth and eleventh holes, then had an aberration like never seen from him before, as he plonked two balls consecutively into the water at the short twelfth hole.
The loss of four shots on one single hole and the tournament had been turned on its head. The door was open and through it stepped Danny Willett, an emerging young Englishman, who had never been in a position like this before. This was his ‘carpe diem’ moment and he seized it with both hands. He had played delightfully all day and when the opportunity presented itself, as the pressure and scrutiny intensified with the eyes of the golfing world upon him, he stepped up and played like a master. A few immaculate holes later and, despite a late rally from Speith, the green jacket was his. An Englishman had not won the Masters since 1996, so this was some achievement.
Twists and turns at every step, a roller coaster ride down the stretch, with an exhilarating climax. It was both spellbinding and captivating. Sport does not get much better than this.
Yet sport, like life, like love, has to have winners and losers. One man’s joy is another man’s pain. It can be a cruel world. The ecstasy and elation of victory contrasted with the pain and despair of defeat, witnessed in equal measure, in a few short moments. A kaleidoscope of emotion, often more powerful than any movie. This is live and for real.
Speith’s downfall was akin to a Shakespearean tragedy, often characterised by the ‘tragic flaw’, where it is the internal imperfection in the hero that brings him down. His downfall becomes his own doing and he is no longer, as in classical tragedy, the helpless victim of fate. This clearly left Speith distraught, desolate and devastated. Yet then, in the greatest irony of all, and in accordance with protocol and ceremonial duty, he had to present the green jacket to his conqueror, almost akin to thrusting a dagger through his own heart. Surely a situation only possible in sport?
Moving forward to last night at Anfield, in Merseyside, the home of Liverpool Football Club, some say the spiritual home of football. The Germans of Borussia Dortmund were in the city for the second leg of the Europa League Quarter Final, a match of huge interest particularly given the draw in the first leg and the presence of Jurgen Klopp as the manager of Liverpool, when his last role was as manager of their opponents.
Anfield can be a pleasure dome like no other, the once revered yet now disgraced Stuart Hall used to refer to it as ‘the colosseum’, an apt description indeed. Last night it was full of raw passion and emotion, the match coming as it did a day before the 27th Anniversary of the tragic Hillsborough disaster, a deeply nostalgic day anyway in the history of this proud club and its supporters. Before the match even began the stadium had been worked up into a frenzy as spine tingling renditions of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ resonated around the ground. Liverpool legend ‘Lawro’ was moved to say that in all his years he had never heard anything like it. An anthem belted out like never before followed by stone silence, impeccably observed, in memory of the 96 victims. Emotions were stirred, tears were shed and the match had not even started. Such power.
Yet despite the electricity, fervour and passion of the moment, Liverpool were caught cold. The Germans were clinically efficient and led 3-1 with only 25 minutes to go. Liverpool needed three goals to progress and even the most ardent Liverpool supporter must have thought that this was mission impossible. The ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ was still fresh in the memory but surely lighting does not strike twice. Philippe Coutinho reduced the deficit to create some hope yet when Mamadou Sakho stooped low to head an equaliser, the whole of Anfield was on its feet, urging their red shirted heroes forward. It was like a cauldron and when Dejan Lovren leapt high to head home the winner at the death, Liverpool had completed one of the most incredible of victories. Again, the script could not have been written, it was a comeback of such epic proportions and, like Istanbul, will be talked about for evermore.
Moments like these have to be enjoyed and cherished. What we have witnessed this week are events so extremely rare that they must be treasured. The sporting calendar is a hectic one and more fixtures are lined up this coming weekend but for the moment, they can wait. It feels as though it would be ‘insulting’ to look ahead before these extraordinary encounters have been properly savoured.
Big sporting successes do not come along very often. Certain matches or events stay in everyone’s mind. Everyone of a certain age knows where they were when President JF Kennedy was shot, when Lady Diana was killed and in a similar vein when England won the football World Cup in 1966 and to a lesser degree the Rugby World Cup in 1993. Historic moments yet again illustrating the power and influence of sport on people’s lives.
Yet despite what the late great Bill Shankly said, sport is not a matter of life and death, nor is it more important. However, it plays an increasingly powerful part in many of our lives. It can be incredible in many ways and has the ability to lift and to inspire. It can produce drama, theatre and excitement in equal measure.
So, as the dust settles on the glorious events of the past week, when reports have been read, interviews heard and reactions digested, we can sit back and reflect. There have been glorious victories and incredible moments. We can applaud and rejoice in the success of the winner and we can share in the despair of the loser.
As Holly Johnson proffered, ‘love is like an energy, rushin’ rushin’ inside of me’. Sport has shown again that it can provide similar feelings, lifting our spirits and producing moments of sheer ecstacy. In the same way that Holly wrote about love, ‘sport is danger and sport is pleasure’ and its power lives on.