Recovered yet? Although I am the fairest of fair-weather soccer-ball fans, I’ve never known a non-alcohol induced hangover like it. A fortnight ago, it was definitely coming home, right? The English started to feel some creeping, unfamiliar sense of patriotism and pride in watching none other than their national football team trot onto the pitch and acquit themselves… sort of adequately? Unfortunately, a number of inevitable things happened – yes, penalties – but either side of that were supposed football ‘fans’ making, and I can’t put a too fine a point on this, tits of themselves… big, lairy, racist tits.
One supposedly inevitable thing didn’t happen, however – because, for a change, the squad in question acted with dignity, humanity and poise, both throughout the tournament and in dealing with the fallout. No shifty kicks to a rival groin, no ‘nice to see your home fans booing you’ to a TV camera – just quiet grace in defeat, giving us hope for the next tournament, and making icons out of runners up. This was all leadership by example by real leader, Gareth Southgate. Football finally had a shred of humanity; we could identify and empathise with players as actual people who were just trying to be better.
Now, I’m not saying Ted Lasso – series 2 premiered on Apple TV+ last week – has had any bearing on this. At the same time as the England team bucked a trend and a manager became likeable, though, ‘Ted Lasso’ seems to have overcome a problem which previous sports sitcoms have faced – that it’s very hard to root for the protagonists. Look at the wreckage beaten on the craggy shore of attempted sport sitcoms: Prince Among Men – cartoonish and unrelatable; Trevor’s World of Sport – remote, leaving you cold towards the characters; The First Team – well-acted, but featuring stereotypical footballers who you didn’t care about when they got into scrapes; Footballers Wives – funny, but not deliberately.
Sportspeople are historically sheltered, liberated from the pressures of having to develop a personality, when their main character attribute from an early age was being able to run fast, being good with a ball or, selfishly, both. These people aren’t losers – and it’s hard to make comedies out of people you don’t root for in some way. Even the great dickheads of comedy – Fawlty, Brent, the entire gang in Always Sunny… – have you wanting them to succeed, to overcome something, to win just this once.
Lasso somehow melds the modern mantra of ‘be kind’ with being actually funny. It takes what we initially assume to be stereotypical characters – the naïve American, the WAG, the hotshot young player, the embittered divorcee – into unexpected, intelligent and hilarious realms, rendering characters who, in other hands, would have been unlovable cardboard cut-outs, into three dimensional, rounded human beings. A bit like a certain manager has done with a certain squad.
Unfortunately, English football has been associated with unpleasantness, whether that’s the behaviour of fans off the pitch, players on the pitch or players reportedly paying visits to prostitutes called ‘Auld Slapper’. Though as a nation it has always been easy to love football, it’s been a tough ask to love the footballer, ensconced in their world of privilege, trapped in arrested development of childlike entitlement.
Ted Lasso gently nudges the narrative, and plays with these expectations. At first it just feels a bit silly, but it’s eminently watchable. From the middle of the season, however, it blossoms into something sweet, sad and really, really funny. The trappings of the megabucks world amongst which our characters live quietly take a backseat, and humanity comes to the fore – the messiness, the vulnerability, the imposter syndrome. It’s here that Ted Lasso finds the comedy.
For the first time in my memory, an entire team of football players has become likeable. Sure – you can talk about your Cantona’s, your Ronaldo’s, your Beckham’s, but one drop-kicked a fan; one’s personality is so utterly bratty that, as yet, no sculpture has managed to capture its true essence, and one was discouraged from speaking his mind so much, that when you did occasionally hear his voice emerge, you were always left disappointed. These were heroes, you see – best left remote and unknowable.
The humanisation of once unreachable celebrity has led to Ted Lasso, but that is not to dismiss the writing or the performances. As a talisman, Jason Sudeikis brings pure joy and a comedy timing so subtle that it lightly brushes past you, but it’s with the likes of Hannah Waddingham, Juno Temple and Brett Goldstein where the real expectations are defied and the show really sings. As I said, Ted Lasso may not be the reason for the brave new world of decent footballers, but it plays into the narrative – and we finally have ourselves a great sports sitcom… after so many jokes, so many sneers, all those oh-so-nears.