An artful codger rocks cradle of the game

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The Independent Online
THE Arsenal Stadium Mystery was a 1938 movie which attempted to exploit our mass fascination for football and its success was such that nobody has dared embark on a similar work since. But, last week, a drama of the same name flickered into real life and threw a cloud of perplexity on to the brows of the titled heads of both our nation and our national game.

There are so many improbable strands in this saga it is difficult to select an opening scene but where better than 10 Downing Street last Wednesday when top people of the UK and the FA preened themselves in the glow of a footballing coup after Joao Havelange, the president of Fifa, pledged that his personal wish was that the World Cup of the year 2006 be held in England.

He didn't actually say those words because he spoke in French but, if his interpreter is to be believed, he was adamant that when the decision is made by the Fifa executive in June 2000 he wants it to favour England.

I take it that when Havelange arrived for his 30-minute visit, neither the Prime Minister nor the other assembled dignitaries were expecting any more than to put England's case and get a few pleasantries in return. Although the 82-year-old Fifa supremo didn't get where he is today by neglecting to say the things people want to hear, what he said took his audience's breath away, and in those surroundings that amounts to a lot of breath. "We are well aware that England is the mother of football and the cradle of the game," he said. "Mr Blair has confirmed that a centrepiece of the bid would be a new Wembley stadium, the most important element of this bid and something that England can be proud of."

The resulting euphoria lasted for 36 happy hours. "England Win the World Cup", boasted the Sun. At the FA's headquarters, officials were drawing lots to decide who would have the pleasure of telling the French they couldn't have any tickets.

But the cynical, the less trustful, were already starting to trickle the cold water on the prospect. Havelange is an old trouper in football diplomacy and when it comes to artfulness a cartload of monkeys wouldn't have a price. It was quietly mentioned that he will have retired long before the decision is taken and that, furthermore, England's main rivals for 2006, Germany and South Africa, had each received from him endorsements of a similar nature.

Further evidence that it should all be taken with several acres of Salt Lake City was being amassed when up stepped Arsenal with the astonishing news that they were bidding to buy Wembley Stadium in order to acquire the seating capacity they were unable to create at Highbury.

Havelange had hardly left the country and here were Arsenal gnawing at the central plank of his support. If they succeeded in acquiring Wembley, it could not be developed as the national stadium of which the Prime Minister so proudly boasted. Without the name Wembley, best known of all football stadiums, any other arena, no matter how extravagantly constructed, would not be as magnetic an attraction to whatever nostalgic hearts beat among the Fifa executive - and would provide them with full justification for breaking the ex-president's promise.

Arsenal's motive for bidding pounds 110 million for Wembley - and Wembley's for seeming to take it seriously - is alleged to be a means of putting pressure on others; Arsenal on Islington council to grant permission to increase Highbury's capacity and Wembley on the government to up their offer from pounds 90m.

The original Arsenal Stadium Mystery involved a murder plot and featured all the Arsenal players. The leading actor was Leslie Banks, with whose work I am not familiar, but I doubt if he would have been capable of the dramatic range demonstrated by his modern counterpart Tony Banks, minister of sport, whose facial contortions between the bliss of the Havelange statement and the news of the Arsenal bid could have been achieved only by a master.

Before Arsenal made their unexpected appearance, Banks had identified the threat to England's staging the 2006 World Cup as coming mainly from the fans who will invade France this summer. Without minimising the danger of that lot fouling up our chances for the next 100 years, it is difficult to restrain the thought that there was a frightening degree of hooliganism at work in the corridors of power last week.

Not that I would dare include Havelange in that statement. But this is the man who achieved his present position at the expense of our own Sir Stanley Rous; a lovable, silver-haired old soccer supremo if you ever saw one, but no match for the wily Brazilian. I'm not doubting Havelange's affection for the "cradle of the game" but few hands have rocked that cradle harder. It is odd, too, that this was reckoned to be his first visit to England. It seems a little late to be making a pilgrimage.

It is tempting to be suspicious of all that transpired in the matter of England and the World Cup and Wembley last week. If I was a betting man I would get a price on Arsenal building a large stadium on a site near King's Cross and on Germany being selected as hosts for the 2006 World Cup. And try getting tickets out of them.

THOSE enticed by the spectacle of the Cheltenham Festival to plunge into the battle against the bookmakers should be aware that horses are very much like humans. They can be just as odd and quirky. Many such animals will be carrying a weight of money this week so it as well to discover what little foibles you should be looking out for.

Kadastroff, for instance, is joint favourite in the Arkle Trophy Chase on Tuesday but he suffers from a version of equine vertigo in that he does not like running uphill. Normally, this would not be a problem, but at Cheltenham the finishing stretch runs up a long and nasty slope. This doesn't mean to say that he will not win but, if you back him, be sympathetic as he tries to overcome his dislike.

In the same race, Wade Road is also strongly fancied. His particular hang-up in that he tends to lean to the right and thus prefers a right- handed track. Unfortunately, Cheltenham is a left-handed track. This doesn't mean that he will end up in the car park, because the jockey will be doing his best to correct matters. Just be appreciative of the inner conflict and don't get too concerned. You can leave that to the horse. "He does worry a lot," says his trainer, Henrietta Knight.

One Man, a keen challenger in the Champion Chase on Wednesday, is aptly named because that's the size of crowd he'd prefer to watch him run. He hates noise and as he nears the winning post and the packed stands, the roars are likely to put him off his stride. If you back him, just remember to keep your mouth shut until he has passed the post.

Challenger du Luc, who races in the Gold Cup on Thursday, would have a lot more wins to his credit if he could bring himself to like being in front. He only runs for the company and if he can't see another horse, he waits for them to catch up. The trick is to let him hit the front a yard from the winning post, which requires highly skilled jockeyship.

Perhaps, this is the week when all four will conquer their idiosyncracies. But don't say they didn't warn you.

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