Eddie Betts

Column for GQ Australia, 2016

IF Eddie Betts’ goal against Greater Western Sydney the other weekend isn’t named Goal of the Year at season’s end, it has to be assumed that anything that does beat it will involve levitation, alchemy, time travel, the summoning of dragons, possibly all four – or be something more improbable still, probably conjured by Betts himself. Annoyingly for my hopes of making the perspicacious observations about sport and joy shortly to follow in a more timely fashion, Betts was more subdued in Adelaide’s demolition of St Kilda on Sunday, though the semi-inadvertent long-range assist to Josh Jenkins was pretty special.

If Betts has already scored the Goal of the Year, it would – let’s face it, will – make him a three-time winner of the award, following his 2006 smother-and-banana against Collingwood from the MCG boundary, and last year’s insouciant twirl and left-foot torpedo-snap against Fremantle from the corner of the boundary and 50-metre line at the Adelaide Oval, across the park from the pocket already named after him, so frequently does he employ it as a stage for his prestidigitations.

There is an established litany of responses to sporting brilliance, much the same across all codes: applause, cheering, swearing, sundry wordless exclamations of astonishment. Betts’ goal against GWS made me wonder, sometime around the twentieth time I watched it, whether there’s a still higher form of praise. It occurred to me that my own response, the first time I saw it, was to laugh. And the more I watched it, the funnier it got.

Watch it again: I’m sure as heck going to. The ball rolls to the line, in meandering fashion: might go out, might not. GWS’s Nick Haynes leads the pursuit, but hesitates: he explained to The Age’s Greg Baum, in a terrific piece interviewing witnesses to the ensuing miracle, that he worried about getting called for deliberate out of bounds. That flinch of indecision is all Betts needs: he slides in like a cricket outfielder intercepting a boundary, puts his hand gently but firmly on the ball. Then he’s up, and then he’s off, feet outside the line, hands and the ball still in play. He scampers towards goal, two opponents clutching handfuls of vapour. The crowd rises, as does the volume of the commentators: they all know they’re about to see something they won’t believe they’ve just seen. And he scores. Of course he scores.

What else is there to do but laugh? It’s partly the audacity and impudence of it. It would occur to few other current players – Lance Franklin, Cyril Rioli, Steve Johnson maybe – that there was a goal to be plucked from the dwindling play before him. It might not even have occurred to Betts (“I don’t really think when I’m out there,” he told Baum. “I just try to make stuff up.”) But it’s not just the audacity and impudence. Betts perpetrates this sort of sorcery so often, so reliably, that it elicits a Pavlovian reflex – the laughter is the laughter of the in-joke, the laugh that starts before the punchline is delivered, so familiar is the set-up.

There’s a gag Tommy Cooper used to do about finding a painting and a violin in his attic, getting them valued, and being told that he has discovered a Stradivarius and a Rembrandt. As soon as Cooper says “Unfortunately. . . ,” the audience collapses. So many of Cooper’s jokes were built to the same bait-and-switch template that everyone knows what’s coming: the auctioneer is going to say that Stradivarius was a rotten painter, and Rembrandt made lousy violins. It’s the same, now, when Betts gets possession in what would be, for anybody else, an impossible position: you start laughing because you know you’re about to start laughing.

It’s also, I think, a reaction to the character of the player involved, or at least to what you understand of it. Gary Ablett Sr was the greatest player I ever saw, but he never made me laugh: there was too much menace and violence and oddness about him. Nor, much though I admired the West Indies of the 70s and 80s, did I buy any of that fatuous, patronising calypso-cricket bullshit: they were terrifying. And I couldn’t find Ali funny in the ring, but outside it was another matter: he may be the only sporting champion in history whose interviews were as notable as their performances.

The athletes who can prompt that supreme accolade, of irresistible laughter, are that rare few who can wear such talent lightly, who appear utterly unburdened by their gift. With Betts, the celebrations are almost as treasurable as what they’re celebrating: that goofy, sheepish, what-are-you-gonna-do shrug-and-grin. He admitted to Baum that he feels “embarrassed” when his shots land, and that’s it, right there: however often it happens, he’s still as surprised and delighted as the rest of us.