Real Celta, the Galician football club who finished thirteenth this season in the Spanish top tier La Liga, is celebrating its centenary and this week made a trip to the Vatican – not, perhaps, Jack Grealish’s idea of a party, but a suitable jolly for a team with the Cross of St James on its crest. In some remarks which did not suggest particular familiarity with Celta’s recent fortunes (a fourth-place finish in La Liga in 2003, followed by relegation and a decade of scrambling between the first and second divisions), Pope Francis made a telling observation: “When sport loses this amateur dimension,” he said, “it becomes an aseptic business, devoid of passion.”
Manchester City’s star Jack Grealish celebrates another victory.
While the pontiff certainly has opinions on player remuneration, club ownership and ticket costs, “amateur” here refers not to a game’s employment structures but the outlook of its participants. Do they do it for the love of it, the love at the Latin root of the word (amator, “lover”) and which keeps amateurs, as we now understand them, turning up at the park on a damp Sunday morning? This isn’t about whether you’re paid, but about whether you approach the game on its own terms or with something else – money, pride, vanity – foremost in your mind.
These ideas had one of their periodic airings in the English and Australian press in the past fortnight, following the second Ashes Test at Lord’s. Everybody shouted that the Australians’ stumping of England’s Jonny Bairstow (as he wandered from his crease just before the end of an over) either did or didn’t accord with the “spirit” of the game. (The ha’pennies-worth contributed to the debate now constitute a tidy capital sum to which I haven’t the funds to add.) One party decried the Australians’ cynicism; the another praised their professionalism. Beer was spilt. A snide party insisted that “the spirit of cricket” was an absurd pretension – rules is rules and that’s how the game should be played.
But no game worth playing is played like that. Rules are never self-sufficient or watertight, but depend on the indefinable consensus that prompts a group to follow them to some collective end. There’s no point fulminating over the MCC regulations if you can’t get an XI together (I speak from bitter experience), and regulations will break down if players repeatedly pick at one weak point without considering the greater whole. In this sense, the stumping, a fleeting moment, was far less of a threat to the spirit of the game than the dozens of overs of tedious bouncers both sides bowled to stifle shot-playing.
All this talk of the “spirit” could lead to a very cumbersome analogy. Let’s stick instead with Francis’s amateurs, the people doing what they do out of love for the whole enterprise, not letting details or doctrine become “an aseptic business” by losing a sense of their greater end. Back in the Ashes, England won the third Test at Headingley, keeping the series alive at 2-1 to Australia with two to play – a result welcome to lovers of the game. No doubt the Pope cheered too.