In some cases these moments of magic are lightning strikes, little cameos which showcase sport's never-ending capacity to delight, surprise and astonish (a stunning breakaway goal against the run of play, for instance). In others, they may be the culmination of a long, winding narrative which, with hindsight, has an air of glorious inevitability about it (Kevin Pietersen's destructive innings which finally clinched the 2005 Ashes, say).
I call these 'defining moments'. In my mind, they form a mental photo album which underlines what great sport is all about and represents the pinnacle of my experiences watching, attending or participating in sporting events. Some of these will be recognisable to most fans, others deeply personal.
Since a big part of the essence of sport is that it is a shared experience, I thought I'd share some of my defining moments from the mental archive. So let's start with an example of that most compelling of basic plots: a tale of redemption.
Wembley, 1996. The European Championship quarter-final.
First up for
Next in line for England: Stuart Pearce.
As a spectator, there is a familiar sensation of fear which forms in the pit of your stomach as a player makes the long, lonely walk from the centre circle to the penalty spot. In Pearce’s case, it is much more than that. A murmur of anticipation goes around Wembley. Are we about to witness a man released after six years of hell, or see him condemned to a life sentence for a repeat offence? Not even a man who goes by the nickname ‘Psycho’ deserves to suffer like this twice in a lifetime. With one sweep of his left boot, Stuart Pearce would be either redeemed or branded a choker, a man whose career is defined not by years of outstanding success but by two moments of failure.
A nation collectively holds its breath, but Pearce exhibits not the slightest trace of fear or hesitancy, stroking a left-foot shot wide of the goalkeeper’s despairing dive and into the back of the net.
Wembley roars in celebration and approval. And absolution; to a man, everyone in the stadium knows just how much this means to him.
Pearce himself is in another world – fists clenched, eyes bulging, a lung-bursting scream releasing six years of pent-up frustration and exorcising his demons.
It is one of the all-time great sporting photos, one of those rare occasions you get to glimpse the human being behind the professional façade. Emotion laid raw for all to see; the nightmare of 1990 finally consigned to history in one cathartic moment.
Even now, 13 years later, the memory of it is enough to bring a tear to my eye.
It is not often we are reminded in such stark terms about the fine line between career-defining success and failure which even the most successful of sportsmen and women must walk; rarer still that we see the circle completed, with abject failure being followed by redemptive success. The image of an emotionally-released Pearce screaming at the heavens - and the fact it was played out live in front of an audience of millions - is exactly what great sport is all about, and why I and millions of others love it so much.