Wednesday, February 06, 2008

SPORTIN' LIFE: Munich 1958

Much ink and more self-righteousness has been spilled about the possible desecration of the one-minute silence to honour the fallen of Manchester United in Munich. And yet very little has been done to address the causes of why such behaviour might break out.

The mystique of death and loss is its discontinuity and finality; when referred to ourselves, it is akin to the physical removal of a component of the body. Mourning has become a maudlin and morbid part of late-capitalist Britain; as we have less and less control over our lives, we cling to what we see or feel or imagine to be indissoluble from ourselves. One word: Diana.

But the mood surrounding the 50th anniversary of Munich is similarly presumptuous; it assigns to a terrible event an unwonted significance, that elevates a football club into something more than a football club - a presumptuousness that has led to anti-United animus in the first place. An awful lot of piffle has been expended on what-ifs; if Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor had survived, England would have been world-beaters, Manchester United would have won eight European Cups on the trot, etc.

Fiction. That Edwards was a very, very good player indeed is not in question. Taylor, also. But consider the fact that with Edwards, England had lost calamitously to Northern Ireland at Wembley the previous autumn; that they were to be tanked 5-0 by Yugoslavia in the spring of 1958, a quite appalling fiasco now almost never mentioned in the media - that this rout and the heavy-legged, unimaginative performances at the World Cup in 1958 would have been transformed by the presence of two or three players simply defies reality. It belittles the greatness of Real Madrid (Kopa, Di Stefano, Gento, Puskas) and Brazil (Pele, Didi, Vava, Garrincha).

All over the footballing world, people will mourn Munich with respect. But only outside of these shores is a sense of proportion and a lack of atavistic sentiment likely to apply. On the 20th anniversary of the crash in 1978 the consensus was that a very good team had been wiped out; now, it is as if it were the downfall of gods.

Harry Gregg, the United keeper who pulled team mates and others from the wreckage, claimed that 'I'm not John Wayne'. He does himself a disservice, but United have for too long been part of a Hollywood narrative that is of their own invention and that of apologists. Grief distorts reality; but grief should be a private thing, not something that transcends a collective history of sport.

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