We live in the age of the nostalgia act: old movies are remade, TV shows drag us down memory lane, and veteran bands play endless greatest hits tours.
Nostalgia isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you enjoy it, indulge away. But it becomes a problem if new ideas cannot break through.
Sport is largely immune to this. As much as we might want our favourite competitor to go on forever, the effects of ageing force even the greatest athletes into retirement. They’re sorely missed, but new stars quickly take their place. We know this will happen, know that we can’t stop it, and so we accept it.
This is why sport is the most popular form of entertainment on the planet. It cannot help but stay fresh because it must always unearth new talent. Becoming too wedded to a star name is simply not possible, because eventually their body will cry no more. You can’t re-cast Usain Bolt with a new actor and do it all again.
That’s not the case when it comes to teams, however. For two recent and very different examples of nostalgia’s presence in the world of sport, we can look to Italy.
“ITALY, THIS IS THE APOCALYPSE”
If you cut Italian sport it would bleed two distinct colours: the blue of its national football team and the red of Formula 1 squad Ferrari.
The country is rightly proud of both. The Azzurri have lifted the World Cup on four occasions, while Ferrari have won a combined 31 titles. It is difficult to imagine a World Cup draw without Italy in the pot, or a Formula 1 grid without two red cars.
But in the case of the World Cup, we won’t have to imagine for much longer. On Monday, Italy failed to qualify for the tournament for the first time since 1958, appearing toothless in a 0-0 home draw with Sweden that consigned them to a 1-0 aggregate defeat.
We might soon get a real idea of what grand prix racing looks like without its most famous team, too. On 3 November Ferrari issued a stern warning that they would quit F1 if the Scuderia did not approve of the sport’s future direction.
Ferrari receives considerably more prize money than other F1 teams owing to their longstanding participation and the belief that they add greater value than their rivals. F1’s new owners, Liberty Media, want to level the playing field by evening out distribution of revenue between the teams. No one stands to lose more than Ferrari.
Let’s keep this in perspective: Italy’s absence from the World Cup is only temporary – be it in 2022 or later, they will be back – while Ferrari’s potential withdrawal from F1 is merely a threat, and one that could be reversed even if it was carried out.
Nevertheless, both were met with varying degrees of horror at home and abroad.
“Italy, this is the apocalypse,” cried La Gazzetta dello Sport after the national team’s collapse.
There was concern from fans and pundits elsewhere that the World Cup wouldn’t be the same without Italy. Very few would argue that a team should qualify on historic status alone – though that suggestion is occasionally floated – but there was certainly a sense this was an unwelcome disruption to the order of things.
A few days earlier, the F1 media and fans had been wondering how the sport could cope without Ferrari, a team that has been on the grid since the inaugural season in 1950. Alongside the Monaco Grand Prix, the Italian squad is considered fundamental to F1’s DNA.
In both cases, separation feels barely conceivable. But is that just the nostalgia talking?
ITALY: THE GREATEST HITS
The Italy that we will miss next summer is not the same side that couldn’t find a way past Sweden this week.
When we think of Italy and the World Cup we recall the great Azzurri teams of the past. In our minds we see Tardelli's celebration in 1982, Baggio’s penalty miss in 1994, Cannavaro hoisting the trophy aloft in 2006.
What we saw on the pitch in Russia would have fallen well short. This is a poor remake of an Italian football team – some say the worst in history – which would have done little more than make up the numbers.
That would have been nothing new. In 2014 Italy crashed out in the group stage alongside England; and in 2010 they finished bottom of a group that also featured New Zealand, Slovakia and Paraguay.
We have largely forgotten this, because it isn’t the Italy we seen in our minds or in the pre-tournament TV build-up. We see a greatest hits set without imagining that a less glamorous team might actually be better.
Failing to qualify could be the catalyst for change in Italian football. Clearly they need fresh ideas and this very public humiliation should help bring them to the surface. Qualifying for the World Cup would not.
As fans we want to see the nostalgia act in the hope that it can recapture some of its old glory. It rarely does. The sport’s governing body and TV broadcasters want the likes of Italy at the World Cup too, because they know that nostalgia sells. But for Italy’s own sake, missing out might prove to be a blessing.
FERRARI’S PRIVILEGED POSITION
The Azzurri should be glad the World Cup does not allow sides to qualify automatically based on historical status. It would do them very little good in the long run.
But for the country’s favourite Formula 1 team, historical status – in other words, nostalgia – is a potent weapon in F1’s never-ending political war.
F1 is something of a contradiction: driven by cutting-edge technology, but forever looking to the past for inspiration. This is a sport that sells itself on the danger and glamour of the sixties and seventies more than the stars of today.
As the longest-serving and most successful team Ferrari are at the heart of this marketing push. They are viewed as vital to F1’s continued success, and their threats to quit are treated very seriously.
Their argument is simple: lose us and be prepared to lose millions of fans. It is based on the same sentiment that followed Italy’s failure to qualify for the World Cup: F1 wouldn’t be the same without Ferrari.
But while they are undeniably popular among fans, there is a debate to be had over whether Ferrari’s presence is good for Formula 1 as a sporting contest.
Handing Ferrari a far greater share of revenue based on their historical status keeps F1’s smaller teams in a perpetual state of financial crisis. The rich grow rich and the poor are liquidated. New teams cannot establish themselves, so the old empires remain.
By spending so much time looking to the past, Formula 1 has struggled to find a clear future direction. Ferrari exploit this by threatening to quit – something they do roughly every five years – and F1 continues to allow them special status.
Perhaps the sport’s new owners will take a fresh approach. While Italy might benefit from some time away from the World Cup, F1 could perhaps do with a break from Ferrari.
HISTORY, NOT NOSTALGIA
History is one of the most important aspects of sport. We care about what teams have achieved in the past and it informs how we see them in the present.
Nostalgia is something else. It is what we reach for when there’s nothing in the present worth getting excited about. Italy would not have added much to the 2018 World Cup, so we’d have watched the old highlights reels and then forgotten any of it happened.
In Formula 1, nostalgia – particularly when it comes to Ferrari – has become a key marketing platform. But relying so heavily on the past has prevented the sport from growing. The Scuderia’s special historical status leaves F1 at the whim of one team, to the detriment of many others.
Nostalgia is a powerful form of entertainment, but it lacks genuine substance. Sport is about possibilities and the unknown. It has so much more to offer than highlights from the past.