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According to an England smokesman...

THERE was one day last week when the sending-arms-to-Sierra-Leone controversy drew only marginally more flak than Glenn Hoddle's public avowal that he would take Paul Gascoigne to the World Cup despite the revelation that he puffs his way through 20 cigarettes a day.

One smoker out of a full packet of players doesn't seem to be an outrageous ratio but it drew upon Hoddle a vast explosion of indignation. Much of the hot air came from the ranks of professional gaspers who have taken upon themselves the task of overseeing the moral tone of our sporting life but there was also a general expression of disapproval that was more worrying.

The fact that it was Gascoigne who was involved would not have helped. He has exhausted the reservoirs of patience of most of his admirers and Hoddle is prominent among those who doggedly retain the faith.

This is not a shock. Hoddle has had his own problems but he is a Christian man. He is also a professional who has been burdened with the enormous task of taking England as close to the World Cup as possible. Solely on his proximity to that throne at the beginning of July will he be judged - not on how many nice, clean-living fellas are contained in his team. Gascoigne is one of the few Englishmen who can demonstrate the class required to influence football at the uppermost level and Hoddle is absolutely correct to persevere with him.

The player may yet find it impossible to reach the necessary fitness level, but if his physical condition is adequate when the time comes to name the final squad, he must be included, nicotine stains notwithstanding.

It was in a splendid assessment of the present Gascoigne situation on this very page by my colleague Ian Ridley a month ago that his fondness for a fag was first revealed. Talk of a continuing thirst for a drink was also mentioned but it was the cigarette addiction about which Hoddle was questioned at last week's announcement of the England World Cup training squad. Hoddle is a member of the Arsene Wenger school of fitness and dietary perfection but as far as he was concerned he'd been aware for several years that Gazza smoked and didn't feel it was a serious problem at this stage. After all, he pointed out, Ossie Ardiles was on 40 a day when he won the World Cup with Argentina.

Attitudes have altered considerably since then and it is very difficult to offer any support to those who smoke. I gave up a long time ago and have the convert's zeal about me when I pursue a constant tirade against those friends and relatives who persist in the habit. The fact that they ignore me doesn't lessen my regard for them.

While I might agree that smoking should be actively discouraged and banned from as many public places as possible, to suggest that smoking should be a reason to prevent someone doing their job, any job, is to take the crusade in a dangerous direction.

Smokers claim there are 15 million of them in Britain so Gascoigne will be representing a large constituency and should he prove to be a hero he will, no doubt, offer them some justification. If he's carried off with a coughing fit, however, they might be a little uncomfortable.

Either way, I reject the idea that it is an essential part of his existence in the public eye to set an example. It would be desirable if all public figures bombarded us with nothing else but virtues but few of them do in any walk of fame. Why should sport bear the brunt of that responsibility?

This supposed duty of sportsmen to set standards is not new. Seven or eight years ago, when the England and Arsenal centre-half Tony Adams was imprisoned for two months for a drink-driving offence, the then Sports Minister, Robert Atkins, called for sportsmen who misbehave on or off the field to be denied selection for their national team.

Adams committed an offence a little more serious than smoking but, even then, the suggestion was monstrous, especially coming from a politician. To demand a demonstration from sport of high standards conspicuously unavailable from many of those elected to rule us betrays an arrogance yet to disappear from their ranks.

Thanks to being able to continue with his career, Adams lived down the disgrace and cured his drinking problem. He has just captained Arsenal to a brilliant championship and Cup double and will be the reliable bulwark at the heart of England's defence in France next month.

In his public rehabilitation, I fancy that Adams has sent out more positive signals about the contribution sport can make to life than would have been possible if he had been banished as that long-forgotten minister demanded. The very fact that he felt that such a suggestion was within his remit is still astounding. Can you imagine the Arts Minister demanding the sacking of a violinist for something that happened off the podium? Do we threaten the livelihoods of pop singers and soap stars - whose actions are far more gross and far more likely to impress young people - because of their private behaviour?

We may not get from Gazza the joys of a repenting sinner but Hoddle is entitled to give him the chance. Brilliance is often delivered in unpleasant packages. Sport is better than most at handling them.

ENGLAND's World Cup squad are to be dressed up in pounds 600 suits designed by Paul Smith for their official off-field activities. However, the final fittings have yet to take place because, according to the publicity blurb, players can change shape during their training programme and can only be certain of their final sizes just before the tournament. It all sounds very odd and if there's any sudden alterations in their inside-leg measurements we ought to be told.

England will not be the only participants reaching for the sartorial heights during the World Cup. Top designers have been flitting around the finalists like butterflies. Star among these is Yves Saint Laurent, who is dressing 3,500, including Fifa officials and referees.

But the veteran French designer is not using football to promote his clothes in Britain for fear of being tainted by any hooliganism outbreaks. The official face of YSL in this country is to be Frankie Dettori. A surprising choice when you consider that YSL don't do jockey shorts.

TEARS are scarcely dry on the cheeks of Manchester United supporters but already their thoughts are turning to next year's Premiership hopes. One optimistic fan called in at a Tote betting shop in Birmingham last week and placed pounds 15,000 at odds of 2-1 against United winning the title next season.

They're hardly generous odds considering Arsenal's sudden ascendancy and the year he'll have to wait for the result. Worse still, the punter had to pay tax of pounds 1,350 on the bet. Had he gone to a race meeting and placed the bet with the Tote representative at the trackside, he would have saved that money because bets laid on the course are tax-free.

Still, anyone daft enough to make such a bet wouldn't be clever enough to realise that.