Matador, imreóir, ballon d’or

Sex, drugs and sport – renowned givers of highs and lows. When consumed simultaneously the triumvirate leads to monumental results, but that’s a story for another day. We’re living in an age in which sport is hugely popular. The reasons for this are many, not least that mass mediation and commercialisation has increased the popularity and global appeal of many forms. Athletes have become household names and major sports events carry gravitas on a worldwide level. Everyone knows that a Tiger’s natural habitat is more Sawgrass than Sumatra. Magic Johnson did not go to Hogwarts.  Vuvuzelas and the zika virus only reached peak notoriety grace à the playing fields of the World Cup and Olympics.

Indeed, much has been written about the motivations of fans and participants of sport, just as we have a huge body of work that details the rewards sporting endeavours garner for fans and players alike. I have no intention of attempting to add to that volume of work. I’d much rather consider a specific sport the has been on my mind of late, partly because I’m getting old(er), consequently because I’m finding that I enjoy the game more and more and therefore, I want to succeed at it! What is the sport you ask? The sport, ladies and gentlemen, is flirting. Good old time aged flirting. Unhindered by such nuisance barriers to entry such as fitness, money, or nationality, this sport is literally a free for all. No jersey, nor gum shield, nor shin guards are required, although sometimes I wish I’d had some form of padding to shield me.

It’s like this, whistle blows, girl meets boy (or whatever you’re having yourself) and there’s something about him, undefinable yet definite, that can’t put your finger on but you know at the pit of your stomach that there’s a draw to him, an attraction at a level that you don’t quite understand. And you may slightly palpitate. And you certainly might think to yourself that you’re gone past the getting butterflies stage of life, but there they are fluttering inside, reminding you you’re human. You’ll nearly always go home and find yourself thinking about Monsieur Butterfly, trying to fathom what it is about him that has distracted you, replaying the moments you first laid eyes on him, or better still, your first conversation. And then you’ll probably try to push it out of your mind, only to be reminded of him ad infinitum over the next few days by the usual ‘signs’.

You know the ones, like where angels send feathers only in this case the angels may have been dabbling in acid and instead you get less subtle ‘signs’ like you turn on the telly and there he is, or a book he wrote falls off a library shelf on your head or you pour a bowl of cereal and cheerios fall outside the bowl in the perfect shape of his initials. Ever happened you you? Of course it has. Some of you will even have looked at the sky only to recognise his name scribbled across it in skywriting. The most subtle one of all, of course, is when soon after your initial meeting, you just unsuspectingly walk smack bang into him. (I mean smack bang – not just a cursory walk-by/wave-by. I’m talking a full on, “whoops I’m so sorry about that, your nose is bleeding, have I broken it?” type encounter.)

Thus begins the second phase. Your stamina is tested. It’s incumbent on you to act normal in this situation in spite of the fact that your butterflies have now resurfaced but they’ve relocated to your head and you feel your voice coming out of your ears, your brain has sunk to your toes, you’ve no clue what to say and you’re feeling a film of sweat start to coat your boobs. Be normal, you’ve got this! It will pass off without further blood-loss, and you’ll likely return home with greater clarity on the whole picture. In spite of not having a clue what it is you are attracted to, you will give in and accept that, yes, you absolutely do fancy the arse off this lad. There, you’re now an honest player!

Third phase is where the fun starts. He’ll text, you’ll reply and it’ll all be by the rules. Gentle passing of the ball with careful accuracy and the hope of retaining possession. You’ll both keep it onside, show off your skills a little, but all in the spirit of Fair Play. Game points, set points all leading up to a crucial match point, then after a few tame encounters… there it is. He puts a fraction of a hint of a toenail over the line and you follow suit so that before long, you’re both in touch or maybe even a sin bin and you’re both lapping it up. Full contact, pulse racing, communicating, salivating, fornicating. You can’t believe you’ve crossed that border into the unregulated land of hope and double meaning.

The third phase is not without time outs. It’s hard to sustain a relentless marathon of manic flirting without coming up for air every now and then. So there will be purple patches, during which you are supposed to resume being a normal human being, although it could be the case that you spend these breaks wishing that the next text from him would come soon, but your mother brought you up to be ladylike which, in this situation, means you won’t send the first text. So you’ll wait, and you’ll wait. And you’ll risk dying in a state of wait, until late one night he’ll make your phone beep then your butterflies jitter, your heart race and your fingers run. Following this, time will be called and play will be suspended until whenever… And you wait. And wait. If only waiting were an olympic sport…

And so in my fourth decade, I finally understand the fourth phase, and it’s this. The waiting is as crucial as the playing. The things that are not said are as critical as the texts that are sent. Uncertainty helps protect our interests, our egos and our reputations. It may even help shield us from being overly vulnerable. In the sport of flirting we indicate that we like the look of someone and put ourselves forward as potential play mates. Michael Owen summed it perfectly in one sentence when he turned to Glen Hoddle and whispered “pick me and I’ll score”. (And God knows, but quoting Michael Owen is, in itself, a flirtation with failure!) At its core, flirting is about showing interest and suggesting ability. But in order to play we need to be ourselves and not an obsessive, compulsive, manic freak hanging on every word someone sends or clock watching to see when the next text might come. Manic freaks bite off ears, crash expensive race cars, kick out at fans and maul linesmen (absolutely no reference to Dermot Connolly here). In all sport, time-out gives participants the time and space to breathe and be, to contemplate the highs to which they may have ascended during play, and the chance to savour them again and again in private. Flirting is no different. Hunger, desire and the need for fun build – and together they amount to the perfect conditions for further flights of flirtation.

I’m in the fourth phase, willing and able but patient. I’m not waiting for a ‘sign’ to fall from a shelf or for writing in the sky, I’m just hoping that those little butterflies come a-fluttering again soon.