It’s the unlikely rivalries that make these World Cups so compelling, the juxtapositions of nations, cultures and concepts over a round ball to bend the mind, your Nigeria-Icelands, Poland-Colombias, Australia-anyones. But nothing, nothing will beat Simon-Schama-Alan-Shearer, as played out this week, for the exploding of otherwise-flexible minds.
The Twitter – what shall we call it – face-off, spat, coming-together-in-a-balletic-affaire-d’honneur-of-art-history-and-thunderous-strikes-from-the-edge-of-the-box between the BBC’s go-to historian and football pundit (who it’s wonderful to imagine might be old mates anyway from countless Corporation soirees) not only saw Schama, in effect, query Shearer’s emotional intelligence but raised questions about legitimacy of opinion all the more relevant in this age of social media, where everyone with eyes to see and thumbs to philosophise has a platform from which to spout.
Schama suggested Shearer’s pre-match analysis might be underestimating the nerves of England’s young squad. Shearer’s response was to remind the pipsqueak historian that he’d played in such games himself. It’s fair to say, Twitter awarded the contest to the footballer.
But do Shearer’s credentials make his opinion more valid? It’s a familiar ploy of the ex-player in a spat to pull rank, but such an argument is riddled with fallacies. If validity of opinion were commensurate with pedigree, we’d be interested in the views of only the greatest, who would all agree with each other about everything, because they would know The Truth.
It’s not Shearer’s 30 England goals but his charisma and eloquence that make him the pundit he is. Nevertheless, he would have to give up his seat to Gary Lineker (48 goals, who, incidentally, expressed a view in agreement with Schama’s). Lineker’s record and therefore opinion under this paradigm would suddenly be more valuable. But even they would have to give way to Pele and Maradona. Everyone else’s opinion would be on a sliding scale of irrelevance, according to pedigree.
Playing, however, which is a physical, instinctive discipline, couldn’t be further removed from punditry, which is static and intellectual, and so the best players are not necessarily the best pundits. And sometimes an historian can touch on a truth relevant to football that an alpha-male ex-player may not be so sensitive to, just as a pale-faced geek who’s watched endless hours of footage but couldn’t kick a ball from one end of his screen to the other might know more about Colombia’s right-back.
Who knows if Schama played football, but he’s an intelligent man who has no doubt faced down nerves himself in situations that might reduce Shearer to a quivering wreck. Indeed, it shouldn’t take too much imagination for any of us to form an idea at least of what striding onto the World Cup stage might be like. Either way, as much as ex-players are to be respected for their achievements, once their playing days are over they are as much a part of the opinion bun fight as the rest of us, no better, no worse.
I’m not so sure Shearer did win the face-off. But here’s to more of them.
Michael Aylwin’s novel about the future of sport, Ivon, is out now