Bungling hypocrisy of political football

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THE Football Association's decision to postpone the planned friendly match with Croatia at Wembley next month seems to have drawn a sympathetic response all round. But then, daily, we are shown pictures of war and misery in the Balkans, so the mind instantly shrinks away from the idea of sporting contact with a nation at combat. The rationale is that sport, when placed against war, becomes a triviality at best, an event in bad taste at worst.

Nevertheless, there is a case to be made which suggests that the decision to cancel was wrong. From a purely footballing point of view, the Croatian side, stuffed with attractive ball players, would have brought a flavour of excitement to a series of Wembley friendlies which have seemed to become more mundane the nearer we move to next summer's European Championships.

Croatia, already the "dark horses" for this event after beating the likes of Italy in their group matches, would have given the England coach, Terry Venables, and his team a fair "marker" on their state of readiness and might have revived the competitive edge of which England - spared qualifying as host country - have been deprived.

Instead, we now get a game against one of the most disappointing teams of last year's World Cup, Colombia, who have no interest in the European Championship and will arrive almost certainly clapped out after recently competing in the Copa America. They are, like most of the South American sides, available for hire at short notice because they usually need the cash.

That's the purely footballing objection to the decision, but there is obviously a moral and political dimension. Yet those who point to Croatia's offences against civilised behaviour could no doubt make an equally valid case against Colombia. A British citizen was recently kidnapped and shot there, yesterday it was announced that a British diplomat had been seized at gunpoint; half the government is under investigation for allegedly taking money from cocaine cartels, and you could take the view that the crack epidemic on our streets has at least some of its origins in Cali and Medellin.

In this frame of mind, we would also have had problems with another suggested alternative to Croatia, Egypt, which is at present at war with its more extreme Islamic factions, who are in turn killing western tourists as part of their strategy to destabilise the government. We probably couldn't play France at the moment either, because there's so much opposition to its revival of nuclear tests in the Pacific.

In fact, a case could be made against a majority of the footballing nations should we choose to apply other considerations too literally. What were Japan doing at Wembley in June just two months before VJ Day, with so many hearts still broken by the war in the east? Why did we go to play Ireland at such a sensitive time in the peace process? Might there not be some English fans travelling to Norway in October with a grudge because they beat us in the Eurovision Song Contest this year?

The decision last April to postpone an international match in Germany because it fell upon the date of Hitler's birth, is now beginning to look like an awkward precedent. Yes, to choose that particular date certainly lacked foresight, but to have abandoned the match was to give in to all those back-bench scaremongers and Foreign Office "trimmers" who wilfully confuse football with an instrument of government. It also conceded a notable victory to the neo-Nazis of both nations by seeming to confirm their self-image as a major disruptive force, capable of defying governments and law-abiding public alike.

So now, will there be a hotline set up between the FA's Graham Kelly and the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, so they can exchange views on future fixtures? Who else is likely to go on the blacklist given that we are not even allowed to play against Scotland anymore?

The banning of sports events for political considerations becomes not only an absurd line of thought, impossible to maintain with any consistency, but also a dangerous opportunity for emphasising perceived differences between nations. Croatia will almost certainly qualify for the championships next summer, yet when their footballers arrive in England to play, our own dim nationalist factions will doubtless be able to characterise them as "war criminals" thanks to this postponement.

When the United Nations troops established a ceasefire in Sarajevo last summer, staging a football match was among the first acts of defiance to the warring parties. The British and German soldiers who climbed out of their trenches to play football on Christmas Day during the First World War were recognising their common humanity for an all too brief moment. When governments continue to trade arms to anybody with money, but use football as a sanction, just keep telling yourself it is war that's absurd, not sport.

It was grimly ironic that on the day the BBC's Len Martin died, Littlewoods announced 500 job losses in their pools company. Martin, the man who read the football results on Grandstand every Saturday, was the link between the game and the dreams of all those who had filled in coupons in pursuit of the magic eight draws.

The many tributes to Martin are certainly deserved because he was, by all accounts, a pleasant and self-effacing man, and good at his job too, but I wonder if there was something else going on in the obituaries besides the usual angst as bits of our childhoods fade away?

Spend, Spend, Spend, Jack Rosenthal's brilliant dramatisation of the pools winner Vivian Nicholson's chaotic life, included a wonderfully exciting scene when Viv and her husband Keith sit watching the football scores and listening to the results read, I am fairly certain, by Martin himself and then gradually realise they have won.

The poignant torture of those five minutes must have occupied almost every household in the country, and united in a way that, I fear, the National Lottery does not. Is it too fanciful to suggest that the fondness expressed for Len Martin goes beyond our nostalgia, and embraces a rejection of that simpering pixie Anthea Turner and the balls that rob the poor to feed the rich?

When the Grim Reaper turns up on my doorstep, I sincerely hope I will be able to negotiate a rebate for the five hours I once spent in Australia listening to Joe Bugner, and his scheming wife Marlene, outlining his new future. In that instance, he was to become the Great White Hope of Australia's athletic squad as a discus thrower. He was also said to be acting in a film and to be opening a vineyard offering "Joseph and Marlene Chardonnay".

He never made it to the 1992 Olympics. I've never seen him in a film, and I think I'd have remembered drinking that Australian wine. But this week Bugner announced another reincarnation - as a 45-year-old boxer. If he actually makes it back into the ring, it will say as much about the self-deceptions of boxing as it does about those of Bugner.