Sam Wallace: City-centre chic wins out over rural isolation

 

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The Independent Online

What makes the perfect base-camp for a team at an international tournament? Complete isolation for Zen-like contemplation of the task ahead? Or a bustling city centre that allows players to escape from the pressure? Training at altitude? Or somewhere with a bit of attitude?

The question is pertinent because, over the next two months, the Football Association will hope to sign the contract for England's headquarters for Euro 2012, providing that the team qualify as expected. And the governing body knows that, unless Fabio Capello's team win the damned thing, at some point the choice of England's base-camp will almost certainly be cited by someone as a reason for their failure.

As the tension around the Mike Tindall episode at the rugby World Cup in New Zealand unfolded over the past two weeks, there will have been a few tournament veterans at the FA following events with more than a little interest.

Striking the balance between letting the players off the leash, and the chaos created by one, ahem, incident is no simple task.

The FA knows all this already, which is why they began exploring their options in Poland last August, before Capello's team had even begun their qualification campaign. Pitfall No 1: the danger of being accused of arrogantly assuming qualification is in the bag; the tournament equivalent of laying out towels on sun loungers the night before. The alternative? Discovering the German Football Association has got to your perfect hotel first.

There is one thing we can be certain of when it comes to England's base at Euro 2012 – it will not be as isolated as the Royal Bafokeng sports campus, outside Rustenburg in South Africa's North West province, that was their home for the 2010 World Cup finals. A place where, amid the pristine facilities and splendid sunsets, the whole thing went to pot quicker than in Lord of the Flies.

England will either be based 20 miles from Warsaw's centre or in the middle of Krakow, with the quality of the training pitches in both locations figuring in the decision. The players will be involved in many more appearances in the local community and on behalf of the FA's commercial partners than ever was possible in dusty Bafokeng, miles from anywhere.

What is virtually certain is that, for the first time in a long time, England's players at a tournament will be trusted to stay in, or very near to, a city centre. The remoteness of Bafokeng was adjudged such a disaster that the FA and Capello decided it would not be the same next time, before they had even played their first Euro 2012 qualifier.

Of course, the players will not be the only ones of whom much will be expected. The same will go too for their families, some of whom took centre-stage in Baden-Baden in Germany in 2006. So too for supporters, whose insistence on autographs and pictures with players can be enough to make even the most tolerant of them head back behind the roped-off section as quickly as possible.

And, yes, there is the media – not just the newspapers, and the paparazzi photographers, but the radio stations and television networks who like to tut at "tabloid" coverage but follow the same stories with just as much relish. In short, it is one more chance to see if modern English football and the whole caravan that follows it – its money, its fame and its considerable number of hangers-on – can be trusted not to disgrace itself in public.

Of the two options, Krakow is not one of the Polish cities that has been selected to host matches so that has the advantage that it will not be awash with fans, English or otherwise. In terms of freedom for players, it is not as if the FA is asking for much: England footballers, for example, would never, like their rugby counterparts, consider it acceptable to have a night of heavy drinking mid-tournament.

The hope is not that the England players in Poland might be able to go out occasionally, drink 15 pints of beer and chuck a dwarf around. The altogether more modest ambition, as one FA official put it to me yesterday, is that they will be able to pop out of the hotel and have a coffee with friends every now and again.

Put like that, it does not sound much to ask. But one should not underestimate the amount of planning and preparation that goes on in the modern age so that a few famous footballers can have a cappuccino al fresco without it becoming an "event".

Watched from afar, the Tindall episode looked like it was a watershed moment in rugby. The notion that rugby internationals could go out for a drink during a tournament without it ending up as a major issue has, rightly or wrongly, gone forever. English football passed that moment years ago, probably at the 1990 World Cup finals when the Hostess Isabella episode led to a souring of relations between press and players.

By the time England next qualified for a World Cup eight years later, significant changes, such as the press no longer being welcome to travel on the same plane as the players, had taken effect. Ever since, the England team have been holed up in increasingly remote locations, such as an island (Japan, 2002) and a castle (Germany, 2006) culminating with the long, lonely road to Bafokeng last year.

At Euro 2012 there will still have to be a strong element of privacy, as befits a serious team trying to win a tournament, but it also looks like, for the first time in a while, the portcullis is coming up and the drawbridge being lowered at England HQ. The players, you can be sure, will be delighted. The question, then, is whether the rest of us can be trusted to handle it.

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