Comment: Football missionaries peak too soon

SHADOWY FIGURES are hovering over Old Trafford hoping to buy a slice of the action. Reports of their identity range from the Sultan of Brunei to a group of billionaire Irish racehorse enthusiasts. So once again Manchester United are in the forefront of football's commercial development. They keep opening up new selling opportunities: shirts, scarves, duvets, mugs, shares, their FA Cup place...

Mercifully, United depart tomorrow for Australia where they will play two friendlies before moving on to play lucrative matches in China and Hong Kong. We hope it's a case of out of sight, out of mindlessness but the furore over their ditching the FA Cup in favour of a hastily arranged Fifa circus in Brazil shows no sign of abating.

Indeed, over at the Fifa Congress in Los Angeles the farce is registering daily increases as England's World Cup 2006 campaign presses on remorselessly. And to cap a bizarre week we learned yesterday of the possibility that the 2002 World Cup might be taken away from Japan and South Korea who are due to share the hosting duties.

A dispute over the number of teams Asia have been allocated in the finals led to Asian delegates walking out of the Congress on Friday. The beleaguered Fifa president Sepp Blatter faces the prospect of having to re-locate the event. England would be among the first volunteers and having organised Euro 96 successfully has the infrastructure in place.

However, there is the small matter of a stadium fit to house the final. The rebuilding of Wembley is not due to start until September 2000. There is already talk that it could be started sooner but the timescale would be a formidable obstacle. We have the uncomfortable example of Cardiff's Millennium Stadium to prove how difficult it is to build a mighty arena against the clock.

But diplomacy will probably dictate that the 2002 World Cup stays put. We'd already suffered one setback about that event last week. Fifa discovered that the chosen dates coincided with the rainy season and so they propose bringing it forward to May which will make a huge mess of the end of our season, plus all the others in Europe.

While all this was going on, the FA Cup rumbles continued. William Hague joined in and we didn't even know he cared. The heritage minister Chris Smith, who is Tony Banks' boss, has come out in favour of United fulfilling their FA Cup duties. The club, however, remains adamant as do the FA and Banks, in maintaining that the 2006 campaign depends on it. Fifa, on the other hand, keep insisting it doesn't.

There was a nasty shock for our campaigners when Fifa announced that the decision is to be put back until next July. We've already spent pounds 10m and heaven knows how many top-man hours on this jaunt, and there's still another year to go. The expression "peaking too soon" is difficult to fight off. This has been the most energetically executed but ill-conceived football mission ever undertaken on our behalf and at our expense. It'll all end in even more tears.

ACCUSATIONS OF a serious nature followed the International Rugby Board's disappointing decision to deprive Wales of the services of the New South Wales centre Jason Jones-Hughes who, as his name suggests, felt he had the qualifications necessary to be chosen for the Welsh World Cup squad.

Unfortunately, that his father was born in Colwyn Bay counted for nothing against the fact that Jones-Hughes played for Australian Barbarians against Scotland last year. The Aussies maintain that their Barbarians team is, in effect, their A team and under the rules he was thus already committed to them. Scotland weren't aware of this and neither were several of the team but a committee of three IRB men upheld the Australian view.

Now, why Australia should be allowed to choose the name Barbarians for an official team is beyond me. There is no more revered name in rugby.

Founded in 1890 in Bradford, the Barbarians have been ever since a team chosen regardless of race, colour, creed or country. A Barbarian XV is dedicated only to the finest traditions of rugby and is the very antithesis of a national side.

What have the Barbarians done to deserve having their name purloined, and for a reserve team at that? If it is the Australian A team, then they should call it so and future confusion can be avoided. Wales, who had taken legal advice before picking the player, are right to appeal.

To celebrate their victory, an Australian Rugby Union spokesman proceeded to heap insult on to injustice by criticising the Irish and Scottish as well as the Welsh. "The Celtic nations are stock-piling players from the southern hemisphere and they are being allowed to get away with it," he said.

We in the poorer part of the old country should ponder those appallingly impudent words and reflect where Australia would be if they hadn't been stock-piling Celts for over a century. And I'm not discussing a few rugby players here, I'm talking about the heart of a nation. Australia could offer what their Celtic homelands didn't have - jobs, sun, space...

I always had my suspicions when they used to interview would-be emigrants for the pounds 10 assisted passages Down Under. The interviews and medicals were strict but it wasn't expert tradesmen they were seeking but the best specimens to breed rugby players. They left the weedy ones with us.

Now they have the nerve to plunder the world to replenish their own team with foreigners and yet deny us the sons and grandsons of those who were torn from their roots by force of circumstance. This can't be right.

AFTER YEARS of neglecting sport, politicians suddenly can't do enough for a whole range of sportspeople. I'm not referring to those who become football fans overnight to demonstrate one-of-the-boys-ishness but the more genuine helpmates.

Take chess, for instance. The Government is to legislate to recognise chess as a sport and so give it access to lottery help to promote it as a sporting activity to young people. Chess, which is to be a demonstration sport at the 2006 Winter Olympics, is played competitively by thousands in this country. Britain is the second strongest chess nation to Russia.

To help spread the word about the benefits of the game there will be a House of Commons v House of Lords match on the terrace of the House on Wednesday. The Lib-Dem MP Dr Evan Harris is one of top pawns in this move and he emphasises that although chess is not physically demanding it is a sport of the mind, requiring training, competitive will, preparation and high levels of concentration.

Top players need stamina and to be physically fit. The heart rate can consistently exceed 100bpm in competitive games. As a veteran campaigner for chess to be recognised as a bona fide sport, I congratulate Dr Harris on his efforts.

But I notice that he is also involved in a similar campaign to get duplicate bridge also recognised as a sport. To this end, Dr Harris is sponsoring an exhibition by the English Bridge Union in the Commons Dining Room a week tomorrow when MPs will take part in a match. If chess can be recognised as a sport so should bridge which also has been earmarked as an Olympic demonstration sport. All games should be so recognised as sport as long as they don't involve dice or the internal combustion engine.

However, anyone going along to Parliament to support these causes ought to be warned. By all means have a game of chess but, whatever you do, don't play cards with them.

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