So it is with Euro 2012. Now England are out, for the huge majority of Sunday’s television audience the competition holds little interest beyond the post-mortems on English failure. Though even those will be less dramatic than in the past. This time England were not robbed. Most of the 23 million who watched this latest penalty shoot-out unfold will have concluded that justice was served, that the better side won, and that getting as far as they did and then holding out for so long against a team as canny as Italy represented the summit of this England team’s potential.
But now England have gone, it is only for the more earnest football follower that the fascinations remain. Indeed, the aficionado will argue that the lack of jingoism makes the event breathe easier. It is even possible now – whisper it – to relish the German team’s mix of skill and muscle in a way that would have been impossible in public had they been playing England in the next round.
In sport, only the 100 metres dash can compare to a penalty shootout for elegant simplicity. And no play, novel or movie can match its unscripted drama. Particularly if you are English. Over the years it has provided half a dozen moments that have embossed themselves on our collective memory: Chris Waddle putting his kick so far over the crossbar it threatened Nasa’s orbiting space station; David Beckham slipping as he addressed the ball as if shod in ballet pumps.
Sunday night was but the latest. It had everything a shoot-out requires, including a penalty from Italy’s Pirlo which, in its audacity and brutal beauty, might have come from the pen of Ernest Hemingway. Plus, as these things invariably do, it concluded in English defeat, allowing us to wallow in that ritual mix of self-pity and self-flagellation that comes only with England’s ejection from a football competition on penalties.
Purists – and England fans – may object to it as a method of deciding a match, but with the viewing figures it attracts, the penalty lottery is with us to stay. Sport’s commercial interests love its unfailing magnetic ability to draw audiences, and with them appease advertisers. Indeed, in these days of box-sets and iPlayer, YouTube and Sky Plus, it is one of the few things that we still watch together at the same time – nothing brings us together round the box as a nation like another England defeat in another penalty shoot-out.
Well, almost nothing. Should he get there, Andy Murray in a grinding, marathon Wimbledon semi-final will send huge numbers of viewers scuttling to the box. As would Rory McIlroy engaged in a nerve-shredding play-off in the final round of the Open. And Tom Daley diving into the Olympic pool in Stratford might well have us discussing the finer points of his reverse triple somersault and pike the next morning.
That is the thing about live sport: in this era of ever-fragmenting viewing habits, its communal pull is unmatched. You can’t watch Wimbledon as it happens in a box set; there’s no point checking out the Open on your iPlayer once it is closed; even the British Grand Prix is marginally more interesting if you watch it live rather than on Sky Plus (though, admittedly, the latter does have the advantage of enabling you to fast-forward the dull bits). That is why Sky recently agreed to double the amount it pays for the rights to screen live Premier League action: nothing sells subscriptions like the chance to watch the over-paid, over-hyped glory boys of English domestic football in immediate action.