THE BET (2028)
Adapted from a short story by Anton Chekhov

IT WAS a dark autumn night. The old Etonian was walking up and down his study and remembering how, fifteen years before, he had given a party one autumn evening. There had been many football people there, and there had been interesting conversations. Among other things they had talked of international football. The majority of the guests, among whom were many journalists and intellectuals, disapproved of international football. They considered that form of football out of date, immoral, and unsuitable for modern, first-world states. In the opinion of some of them international football ought to be replaced everywhere by a world elite club football league.

"I don't agree with you," said their host the old Etonian. "I have not played either international football or elite club football, but if one may apply common sense international football is more moral and more urbane than club football. International football shows us the soul of a nation, but elite club football thrills us only with money. Ladies and gentlemen, said the old Etonian, “Which type of football is more urbane, one that holds a mirror up to the soul of a nation or one that thrills you only by money?"

"Both are equally noble," observed one of the guests, "for they both have the same object - the business of sporting entertainment. Football is like a new God. It has the right stimulus to restore us."

Among the guests moved a waiter, a man of five-and-forty. When he was asked his opinion, he said, "International football and elite club football are equally important, but if I had to choose between between them I would certainly choose the second. To play football without the whiff of corruption is better than Blatter."

A lively discussion arose. “Gentlemen”, said the old Etonian “We have all played our part in this. For example, you, Barry old boy, snookered the Football League in ’96 when you baulked at the deal that was on the table”.

One of the journalists teased the old Etonian, “Don’t you think you ought to be a little more sheepish? England took little interest in FIFA and allowed Harry Cavan from Northern Ireland to sit on the FIFA executive for 30 years from 1960 to 1990. Over this period, eight men sat in the Oval office of the White House, but Harry just went on. What makes this even more peculiar is this seat on the FIFA executive is reserved for the British home nations. No other country has such a privilege. England is the dominant home nation and for it not to have had the seat since the 1950s was amazing. It showed a callous neglect of this valuable position and a wretched handling of international relations by the FA”.

“Yes!", said another. Look - there were 210 players qualified to play for England playing in the league last year. People are always pointing the finger at me, but there are other factors at play, which are not our responsibility".

The old Etonian, who was younger and more nervous in those days, was suddenly carried away by excitement; he struck the table with his fist and shouted at the man: "Damn it Scudders, you halfwit! I brought you to this football party years ago to report in to me! You know well that international football is more urbane. We know what we are doing. We have a strategy in place and I'll bet you two million that England will win the World Cup in the 2020s in spite of the lack of help from your brigade."
The waiter dropped his tray. This crash created space in which to speak: "Gentlemen, I have listened enough. Your privilege and sense of entitlement disgusts me. When I was a young boy and innocent in the ways of the world, football filled me with joy and wonder. My uncle used to take me the local non-league club around the corner from the shoe factory in the county town. Now, as a man and as I stand here before you, I need to work a full shift to pay to get in to that same non-league ground. Why is that, do you think? I have stopped imagining what it must be like to go to Old Trafford or Wembley. Your boasting is preposterous on all sides”.

Addressing his employer he went on: “In 1853, men like you , Sir, were only beginning to think of ways in which you could bring order and rules to the factory men, but even then you were already playing catch-up with the pioneers of Yorkshire. For too long you imagined your old martial ways would work in the field of football. One hundred years later Hungary humiliated you! And even now... how can you say that England will win the World Cup in the next 15 years? Why..., I’ll bet you anything that England won’t have won the World Cup in the next 40 years! I can imagine the cry in 2053 now: two hundred years and one World Cup! But this means nothing to me any more. I can’t afford to play a part in what was once the people’s game. I have no hope. My life is nothing. I may as well lie down like a dead dog in your pet cemetary".

Taken aback, and perhaps wanting to appear as a man of philanthropy in front of his guests, the old Etonian adopted a more compassionate tone,

“Listen, old Boy. You ought not to feel so kicked in the cloisters! You deserve your dignity”, said the Old Etonian. “I do believe England will win the World Cup in the 2020s and I am prepared to make a bet of it". Thinking fast to recover his position he smiled and said, "Yes, yes - let's make the bet. If you feel so strongly, sir, then I stake the tenancy of the East Lodge on my estate. You, however, must stake your freedom”. The old Etonian was delighted with his wager and warmed to this game of patronage. “Why not take up residency there now and I shall provide you tickets to a match each season - maybe even an international in the fall? But each day you must work for me - for free! And all this is conditional on you never leaving the East Lodge house when you are not at work. What do you say?”

If you mean that in earnest," said the young man, "I'll take the bet, but why don’t we raise the stakes? I will stay not fifteen but forty years. If England have not won the World Cup in the next fifteen years you have to give me ownership of that lodge and two seats at Club Wembley that I might live out my life as a man with dignity. For the first month after the lodge is mine, as I believe it will be after 15 years because England have no chance of winning anything when they are so poorly governed, your young daughter must wait at my table as I raise a toast to your shrunk shank."

"Er..., Done!" cried the Old Etonian. "Gentlemen, I stake the East Lodge!"

"Agreed! You stake the East Lodge and I stake my freedom!" said the waiter.

And this wild, senseless bet was carried out! The old Etonian, spoilt and frivolous, with privilege beyond his reckoning, was delighted at the bet. At supper he made fun of the waiter, and said: "Think better of it, old boy, while there is still time. To me the East Lodge is a trifle, but you are losing three or four years of your life. I say three or four, because you won't stay longer. Don't forget either, you unhappy man, that voluntary confinement is a great deal harder to bear than compulsory. The thought that you have the right to step out in liberty at any moment will poison your whole existence in there. I am sorry for you."

And now the old Etonian, walking to and fro, remembered all this, and asked himself: "What was the object of that bet? What is the good of that man's losing fifteen years of his life and my gambling away a little piece of my estate? Can it prove that the international football is better or worse than club football? No, no. It was all nonsensical and meaningless. On my part it was the caprice of a pampered man, and on his part simple greed for money and status. . . ."

To be continued…

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