What El Tel said to Hezza
Sunday 26 May 1996
The pitch was the spacious lawn that flanks the British Ambassador's residence in Peking. And the two team managers represented everything that Britain could possibly offer China.
Both men had come in search of a level playing field. Michael Heseltine, Deputy Prime Minister of Great Britain, wanted his 270-strong trade mission to get a fair crack at all those lucrative contracts supposedly on offer behind the Bamboo Curtain.
Terry Venables, coach of the England football team, was just hoping that the pitch at the Workers' Stadium was in rather better condition than it was a couple of weeks ago.
Thus, on Wednesday last week, under the watchful eye of the ambassador, Sir Len Appleyard, the stiffly-besuited Mr Heseltine met the shorter, unbuttoned Tel.
Was the ambassador's lawn better kept than the stadium pitch, a hapless hack inquired of the short, casually dressed one?
"Trust a journalist to find the downside," snapped the tall, bad-tempered blond one.
"Well you can play here any time," laughed the ambassador, diplomatically saving a PR own-goal by HMG.
The Deputy Prime Minister, whose team members are at the mercy of China's cut-throat financial demands, clearly did not realise that his sporting counterpart has the clout to lay down his own terms in the People's Republic. Since a few weeks ago, when England suggested the Workers' Stadium pitch was not up to the standard expected, the Chinese authorities had been working overtime to fill the divots and mend the bald patches in preparation for last Thursday night's game. Hezza and Gazza have rather different pulling power in Peking, was the unspoken home truth.
"They would be doing themselves far more justice if they tried to do a little better, and they have," said Tel, commenting on Chinese pitch maintenance - just the message Chinese leaders have being conveying to British business.
As for why the two teams were in China, Tel could answer that one too. "We have got to be a little bit more far-seeing than we are inclined to be in our country ... It's about time we tried to find out what's going on [in China]." The tall blond one nodded enthusiastically.
The England team had been out training with a ball that morning. "I'm not tired, and I don't see any signs of fatigue with the lads. But they've got some time to go yet," said the leader of Britain's biggest-ever trade mission. It would be an eight-day tour in total, he explained.
"About the same as us," nodded his new mate, Tel.
"Yes, I mean, the adrenalin flows," agreed Hezza, almost smiling.
What followed was a heartening example of how very different echelons of British society can interact with ease.
Venables: "Decisions are quite important, because the story I heard about this [Chinese] queen that wasn't very popular, and made a certain decision where the money never went into the navy and instead went into a marble boat for the Summer Palace, and that set them back a little bit . . ."
Heseltine: (laughs) "I think you'll find that story is rather a long way out of date."
Clever journalist: "The British knocked down the old Summer Palace. It was another triumph for British diplomacy."
Venables: "I thought it was the Forbidden City that was burnt down four times . . ."
Ambassador: "The Chinese really have a flourishing football league here ..."
Venables: "There is no doubt about it ..."
Ambassador: "And they have matches on television the whole time, on Sunday afternoons. I watch sometimes."
Heseltine: "Does it attract large crowds?"
Ambassador: "Enormous crowds, and you're getting a football atmosphere."
Heseltine: "Have they got the Mexican Wave yet?"
Ambassador: "Yes, they do that too, they do the Mexican Wave."
Heseltine: "We even do that at the Tory party conference." (Laughter.)
Venables: "When you leave." (Laughter.)
As for supporting one's own side ... Under the carefully-planned schedule, Britain's biggest-ever trade mission managed to fly out of Peking the day before England played China, and left Hong Kong yesterday, thus also missing today's match in the colony.
As for the score. England trounced China 3-0, China gets Hong Kong back in just over a year, and Mr Heseltine's businessmen are still going to have to give 110 per cent.
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