When I come home from work and stick my key in the door, there is a pitter-patter of tiny feet as my eight-year-old twin boys run up to me and shout: ‘Paris St-Germain won 3-1! First he scored, then he missed, then…’ They are suffering from a harmless case of sports geekery. I had it myself as a child, and have gone on to hold down a job, albeit in the dying industry of journalism. The only difference is that as a child I wasn’t encouraged to bore my dad with my findings, because helicopter parenting hadn’t been invented yet. A complicating factor in our family is that we live in Paris, and when my sons recite sports statistics in strangely accented French children’s slang I often struggle to understand them, especially at breakfast. This makes our interactions even more strenuous.
I have spent months trying to improve my sons’ conversation. I have warned them that girls don’t like sports stats. This bewilders them: who cares what girls think? I have encouraged them to talk about more meaningful things. But since the election of Donald Trump, I have changed my mind. In dark times, sports geekery can help keep us sane.
There is a long tradition of people preferring sports stats to the real world. When league football was suspended at the outbreak of the second world war, much of Britain’s male population went into a sulk. Mass Observation — one of the first bodies to try to find out what the man in the street thought by the revolutionary method of asking him — reported in December 1939 that 49 per cent of football fans read the sports news more closely than the war news.
The report said, ‘Sports like soccer have an absolute major effect on the morale of the people, and one Saturday afternoon of league matches could probably do more to affect people’s spirits than the recent £50,000 government poster campaign urging cheerfulness, even if it were repeated six times over and six times better, as it easily could be.’ Mass Observation concluded, ‘People find the war at present completely unsatisfactory as a compensation for sport.’
Luckily, wartime football soon picked up again. Late in May 1940, as the British Expeditionary Force appeared trapped near Dunkirk; as Harold Nicholson, parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Information, said that shortly ‘the Germans may land thousands of men in Britain’ and the War Cabinet debated making peace with Hitler — at this time Huddersfield made a nine-hour motor trip to London to play a match in the War Cup. Then, while the armada of little boats was rescuing the BEF, a Chelsea-West Ham game drew 32,797 spectators in London. The racing correspondent of the Daily Mail reported after the fall of France, ‘The people were stunned by the news just after the first race at Wolverhampton yesterday but, of course, carried on and presumably the meeting today will go through, if only as a gesture of stoutness.’ (The crucial phrase in this sentence is ‘of course’.)
Many in Nazi Germany felt the same way. The second world war takes on a different aspect when you know that on 22 June 1941, the day the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the decisive act of the entire conflict, 90,000 spectators watched the German league final in Berlin. What were they thinking? It recalls Kafka’s diary entry for 2 August 1914: ‘Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming in the afternoon.’
Or take another pretty big day: on 6 August 1945 the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. At 6 p.m. that evening the BBC Home Service reported:
President Truman has announced a tremendous achievement by the Allied scientists. They have produced an atomic bomb. One has already been dropped on a Japanese army base. It alone contains as much explosive power as two thousand of our great ten-tonners. The President has also foreshadowed the enormous peacetime value of harnessing atomic energy.
At home, it’s been a Bank Holiday of thunderstorms as well as sunshine; a record crowd at Lord’s [for the England-Australia cricket match] has seen Australia make 265 for five wickets.
Now that Trump is about to get his short fingers on the nuclear codes, please forgive me a moment of liberal hysteria. I can’t help being a humourless politically correct elitist; I was born that way. During 2016 I have lost all faith in my ability to predict anything, so I’m not sure what comes first, Putin’s invasion of Latvia or Trump’s bombing of Iran, but I’m not keen to find out.
I understand that my angst is in part simple selfishness. I am one of the losers of this new era. As an out-of-touch metropolitan journalist and citizen of nowhere (now trying to summon the energy to apply for a French passport), I belong to what the communists used to call a ‘doomed class’. But it’s my liberal hysteria, and I feel it. And it’s pushing me to seek refuge in sports geekery.
I had long thought that men my age who call into radio phone-in shows to describe global conspiracies against their football club were suffering from arrested development. A friend of mine says he is always tempted to call in and ask, ‘Have you ever thought that it doesn’t really matter?’ But now I feel less contemptuous. The point of sports fandom is precisely that it doesn’t really matter. When you spend the day obsessing about whether England’s seventh-wicket partnership can hold on till stumps, you are escaping the responsibilities that adulthood piles on to you.
You would like England to eke out a draw, but really you are seeking consolation in the soothing changelessness of sport. Real life is complicated. Girls reject you, people get cancer, and sometimes global disasters happen. But turn on the radio and England are still touring India just as they did in 1933 and 1951 and 1992, and for a few hours you are free to be eight years old again. Sports fandom is a ritual of continuity.
I have found the temptation stronger since 9 November. It’s a philistine version of what some Germans of the Nazi era called ‘inner emigration’: you close the curtains against the horrors outside and lie on the sofa listening to Brahms. Russians of the Putin era have developed their own variants.
The other night I snapped at one of my sons to stop checking the scores on the iPad every three minutes. The moment he went to bed, I dug out the iPad and checked the scores.
Simon Kuper is a columnist for the Financial Times.