When Saturday comes, I'll be online

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Martial arts. Real-wave surfing. Football, football, football. Sports fans have arrived on the Internet. Andy Oldfield reports

The much-hyped Internet is no longer the refuge only of geeks, pornographers and peddlers of unsound politics. Sports fans are getting online, too. A computer, a modem and a phone line may soon be almost as essential as a season ticket.

With almost 4 million host computers, an enormous amount of information is stored on the Internet. However, if you want facts, statistics or opinions about most sports, you do not have to dig deep to find them. American sports dominate, whether or not strikes are disrupting play, but cricket, football and rugby are major players, too, and there is room for almost every other sport imaginable: from martial arts and surfing to hockey and Aussie Rules.

There are several faces to the Internet. One of the oldest is a relative of the text-based bulletin board. Instead of one bulletin board which displays messages on a variety of subjects, however, the Internet has about 9,000 "newsgroups", each devoted to a particular theme. Typical software packages present these as a list with names like "rec.sport.soccer". Use a mouse or keyboard to click on one of these newsgroups and you are presented with a list of postings to the group by fans from around the world, complete with descriptions of the messages which range from the informative to the abusive.

The postings in the general football group are a mix of fact, gossip and abuse (personal and team-related). If you want to make, read or respond to comments about Brian Clough or Bruce Grobbelaar that would provoke any lawyer to mutter darkly about libel, the Internet newsgroups are the place for you.

There is more than a trace of fanzine humour lurking on the Net. Fans can also subscribe by e-mail to lists for specific sports or clubs, including most Premiership and First Division clubs, and receive mail daily in their personal e-mail boxes.

The standard fare is a mix of rumour, chat and opinion: people looking for or trying to offload tickets, find free parking spots at away games, alternative match reports or group discussions about the origin of chants or whether the leading striker is really committed to the club.

Gossip aside, mailing lists are a good way of getting information quickly about results, tables, leading scorers and so on. Hardcore fans often contribute to the list as soon as they get home from a game. They are also often responsible for setting up and maintaining a presence on the latest and easiest-to-use manifestation of the Internet, the World Wide Web.

It is relatively simple to produce professional-looking Web pages that bear little resemblance to those from a photocopied fanzine. The contents, too, tend to be more sophisticated than those of the average fanzine or the Internet newsgroups. Statistics on clubs, photographs of players and grounds, fixture lists and squad details are the mainstay.

Twenty-five English football teams have dedicated Web pages. Although these are run by fans and not officially connected to the clubs, some clubs, such as Sheffield Wednesday, have given permission for the use of copyrighted photographs, logos and text. Others, such as QPR, have actively helped the fans administering the pages. The Nottingham Forest official souvenir shop is putting its catalogue online and a few local newspapers are looking at ways of linking their match reports to it.

Supporters and clubs' commercial managers may be keen on the Web, but the host computers are often in university or research establishments, which would not normally be a source of batting averages.

The compiler of one Premier club page, who prefers to remain anonymous, explains: "The problem is that the stuff is on a system provided for 'legitimate academic use'. We argue that there is only one way to learn how to use the Web and that is to go out and do it. This experience can then be used by the university to set up their 'official' pages. That's one of the reasons we did the pages - to get experience. Our management turn a blind eye, knowing that we are gaining that knowledge which will be useful to them. Plus it is done in our spare time, so they can't grumble there."

A personal selection of sporting sites on the World Wide Web:

Football: track down English league clubs through a set of fans' pages based in Finland. http://sotka.cs.tut.fi/riku/soccer.html.

SportStats football page is a trivia-buff's dream. It has 60,000 facts and statistics on players and clubs online which are updated regularly. It also has a comprehensive list of addresses for English club mailing lists and instructions on how to get your name on these lists. http://www.islandnet.com/agcur/soccer1.html

Bodyboarding: the fastest-growing form of wave riding in the UK, Australia and the US. Useful information for those tempted to hire a board and paddle out into the fray. http://insect.sd.monash.edu.au/jasonl/dropin.html

Australian rules football: in certain pubs in London it can be very important to know all about Aussie Rules. These pages not only have details of all last year's results but also what is happening in practice games and the pre-season Ansett Cup. Also a hypertext link to the Aussie Rules newsgroup's most frequently asked questions. gopher://info.monash.edu.au/11/News/Sport/AFL- Football

Mostly US: the Sporting Green covers everything from the Kentucky Derby through Superbowl to college basketball and the Tour de France - mostly American, but not all. It also offers gateways to news and reports from the San Jose Mercury News and Sports and the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner. http://www.cs.cmu.edu:8001/afs/cs.cmu.edu/user/landay/pub/www/sports/sports.html

General: the World Wide Web Virtual Library is an excellent starting point for finding most things on the Web. You can jump from here to a global sport library which is staggering in its scope and range. http://www.w3.org/ hypertext/DataSources/by Subject/Overview.html

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