Not-quite-diminishing returns

Back in the day when I shared a flat with other males, we experienced a strange monetary phenomenon known as The Rubbish Fiver. Rather than exchanging coins for pints of milk and packets of toilet roll on a daily basis – as students are want to do – we’d save up our receipts, attaching them to our grubby beige fridge with humourous magnets, and work out what we owed each other on a fortnightly basis. This generally meant that paper money was exchanged, saving us all the hassle of having to fish around for 20p and 50p pieces on a near-daily basis.

Dignitary peers out through tatty currency

On one occasion I was handed by one of my fellow flat occupants a rather tattered five pound note as part payment for services in procuring cucumbers and croissants. I deemed this limp piece of currency too pathetic to use and consigned it to my wallet – until the time came to pay said flatmate for running another errand, which provided the perfect opportunity to get The Rubbish Fiver out of my wallet. Predictably, The Fiver then came back to me in due course, and see-sawed between flatmates for the best part of eighteen months, never being spent and getting more and more ragged with every pass.

This crappy RBS five pound note took on such significance that the recipient felt a huge moral obligation not to spend it, thereby keeping the game going. What you lost in recompense for Chocolate Digestives, you more than made up for with the sense of participation in something sporting and worthy. An outsider might have commented that The Rubbish Fiver had no monetary value, given the onus on its custodian not to spend it, but it served a greater purpose. If I was being wanky, I might call it more-than-money, or if I was being a real pillock I might even brand it post-money.

Anyway, this is all a roundabout way of getting to my point about money taking on greater value, namely fivers that appreciate over time. From time to time I like to take a wee flutter on sporting events, usually putting up the stake of – you guessed it – five pounds at a time. Now, I apologise wholeheartedly if this confession offends those of you with a stronger moral compass than myself, but let me make it clear that I know full well the pitfalls of gambling. That’s why I have strict limits of what I can spend each year, an embargo on horses and greyhounds, and a personal policy of donating half of whatever I win to charity (no exaggeration). As I hope to illustrate here, it’s not really about the money anyway.

This process actually started out as a kind of insurance policy against things I didn’t want to happen taking place in sports, the logic being that if the team or individual I didn’t like won, then at least I’d get a small amount of money back as compensation. As a result, England have done poorly in World Cups since 2002, Fernando Alonso hasn’t had a sniff of the F1 driver’s championship, and John McCain got thumped in the 2008 American election (it’s not sport, but important enough for me to make sure it didn’t happen). I also like to think the Curse of Mabon cost Rangers the UEFA Cup a few years back.

My tactics took a change, however, after Wesley Sneijder slotted home a free kick for Holland against Japan at the 2010 World Cup. As I watched the playmaker skip gleefully towards the corner flag, slapping his forehead with his palm (which I thought rather strange as he hadn’t scored a header) and kissing the country crest on his jersey, I realised there was a way to add value to my fivers. Sneijder and his Holland team were on electric form, and there was virtually no chance of them losing to comparative underdogs like Japan. Backing a big team like Holland at the group stages was, in essence, a licence to print money. Or, more accurately given the amounts involved, a permit to press a few copper coins.

With the fiver’s value now increased a little, I took a hiatus until the Champions’ League final, where I again went for the policy of using my five sheets to back an almost dead-cert occurrence – this time out, Barcelona Wonderboy Lionel Messi scoring a goal. Sure enough, The Golden Boy sailed through the Man Utd defence with the grace of an angel picking at a harp and stroked the ball into the net (as I am such a poor writer, I ought to point out that my use of hyperbole here is intentional, and is intended to reflect my dislike of the media’s Messi Love-In). Betting on near-certainty wins again.

Because the stakes were so low and the odds so high, I made very little in return – but that’s not the point. It’s not about the money, it’s about the challenge of seeing how far I can take this fiver and what it can generate over time. In any kind of sport – football in particular – absolutely anything can happen, which is why you’d be absolutely nuts to place any kind of significant wager on the outcome of twenty-two men kicking a pig’s bladder around for an hour and a half. But if using just a small amount of money can peak my interest in sports that don’t involve Raith Rovers and hence are of limited interest to me, then what’s the harm in that?

The Virtual Fiver will next be in action tomorrow, when it is resting on Rafa Nadal beating Andy Murray at Wimbledon. I would be quite happy to lose my stake to see Murray go through (any winnings I make are taken away at source so I don’t get tempted to lump more on than the usual fiver), but at the same time I do realise that it is an utter privilege to be alive at the moment and able to see Nadal at his peak. In terms of physical prowess, the ability to push the human body to its very limits and just sheer outright domination in a sport in which it is so hard to be dominant, I genuinely do believe Nadal to be one of the finest athletes ever – and I apologise if that makes me sound like a second-rate sports writer.

The Rubbish Fiver eventually met its end when it was used to buy a bottle of whisky for our flat’s landlord when we moved out, The Scottish Whisky Centre amazingly deeming it legal tender. So my virtual fiver too will meet its end. But by using it in the way I am now, I know that when its winning streak does come to an end, it will be the result of a big sporting upset. And that, surely, is something worth sacrificing a small amount of coinage once in a while to see.

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