Parliament The Sketch: The holy relic done good in a game for true believers

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The Independent Online
THE LAST witness to be introduced by David Davies, leading a team giving evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport committee on the staging of sporting events, was present less for his intellectual expertise than for his status as a sanctified object. He was, Mr Davies pointed out, "the only person to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final".

Sir Geoff Hurst was here, in other words, as a holy relic of English footballing success, superstitiously deployed to bring blessings on the Football Association's bid for the 2006 World Cup. Members of the committee were not actually permitted to touch Sir Geoff but they were allowed to gaze upon him with the devout contemplation usually associated with splinters of the true cross. Understandably, perhaps, he talked in somewhat Messianic tones about the task that lay ahead. This wasn't just an attempt to secure possession of a massively lucrative event, it was "our historic bid", a moment to reassert British ownership of the national game. Sir Geoff believed that it was the duty of all of us to get behind this "national effort". We had invented the cult in the first place and it was time for us to claim back its most important celebration.

Mr Davies was in spiritual mood too; the FA, he told MPs, had been asking itself "how we can use our game as a power for good" and early missionary work in schools had been successful. But more remained to be done and the World Cup was the best vehicle for revival. When Ronnie Fearn wondered how Wembley's international status would be affected by the destruction of its existing buildings Mr Davies assured him of the continuing appeal of that consecrated ground. Overseas players and teams were all prepared to make the pilgrimage on the basis of name alone; as in modern Jerusalem all trace of the original fabric might have disappeared but the site was still imbued with religious power.

Matters were a little more down to earth with the next group of witnesses, a team of sportsmen from the Institute of Professional Sport, led by Garth Crooks, the institute's chairman. Around 90 per cent of the answers given to select committees could be roughly grouped under two headings: It's Not Our Responsibility and The Government Should Give Us More Money. The high-minded proselytising of the previous session had disturbed this statistic a little but Mr Crooks and his colleagues set us squarely back on track again with an appeal for the players to be given more of a say. I don't know what position Mr Crooks held during his playing career (I'm a footballing agnostic, as it happens) but on the evidence of his performance here he has the natural instincts of a defender. A drive down pitch would come from one of the committee members and Mr Crooks would trap it expertly and make sure that it went no further. He sidestepped his sentence left, jinked it right, turned on himself and retraced his path, expertly dodging full stops and firm conclusions. The footwork was fluent and the poise impressive but the yardage gained was zero.

Less than zero, in truth, as was demonstrated when he ventured an emotional plea to stop the sale of playing fields. He had raised this concern eight or nine years ago, he said, and was alarmed to find himself still talking about it today. Roger Stott looked puzzled. Wasn't it now illegal to sell playing fields without the express permission of the Secretary of State, he asked. If Mr Crooks had evidence that playing fields were still disappearing he really should lay it before the committee. Mr Crooks realised he might have strayed offside and took advice from behind him. "We would like a little more time to put a document together", he said finally, still dribbling impressively, even though he'd lost possession of the ball some 10 yards back.