Comment: Football spurns its league of nations

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IT HAS been suggested before in this space that international football causes us more anguish than it is worth. Arguable as that opinion might be, it would not have lost any weight over the past eight days, during which our pride and sensibility have been subjected to yet another bout of bludgeoning by those who wear our national colours.

Between them they have sent a blast of wintry discontent through the glorious summer we had been bathed in by Manchester United's achievements. Worse than that, the sight of their plaintive efforts has created a sudden appetite for some other form of sporting activity to fill our television screens because, apart from any other consideration, the football we patriots have been forced to endure has been bloody boring.

United's magical night in Barcelona 18 days ago left us wanting more. The past week's events at Wembley, Bologna, the Faroe Islands, Sofia and Anfield have left us in urgent need of a complete rest from the game. It was almost enough to make a man look forward to Wimbledon.

This could be interpreted as a frustrated over-reaction to a series of rapid disappointments but the disenchantment is of much deeper origin that that.

It has been apparent for some time that our hopes and expectations at international level have been well beyond the reach of those employed to attain them. But we are not alone in our mid-summer gloom. France, the world champions, required a late penalty to see off the part-timers of Andorra; Italy were glad to end up with a goalless draw in Switzerland.

Are we witnessing a lessening of the inspiration that once accompanied an international shirt? Players, certainly the successful ones, once relished and responded to the step up in class from club football. As more and more of the better players are coralled into the big club teams it may be that the step is not upwards any longer. Dave Bassett, Barnsley's new manager, claims that the top three Premiership clubs would beat England. That could be a conservative estimate.

It is not the first time that we have discussed the broadening appeal of the game at club level and still fresh in the mind is the prophecy of Franz Beckenbauer a year ago that the World Cup will one day be fought out between clubs and not countries. It is not too fanciful to suspect that two recent utterings from the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, are a defence against that development.

First he proposed the World Cup be staged every two years instead of four; knowing that this would be workable only at the expense of club priorities and would keep the spotlight firmly on the international game. Two weeks ago he issued the further provocative proposal that clubs should field at least six players from their own country at all times.

This suggestion was particularly welcomed by the various associations, because it would mean that more home players would get experience at club level. But, more importantly as far as Fifa are concerned, it would stop the build-up of the star-studded club sides who are dominating the scene. It would be particularly hurtful to English clubs because Scottish, Welsh and Irish players would be regarded as foreign. Certainly Manchester United could not have fielded the team that won them the treble.

The national football associations were never happier than when the clubs were the mere nursery beds in which the internationals stars were nourished. Now the clubs are becoming more appealing than the national sides - and have the cheek to complain that the countries demand their players too often for meaningless friendlies.

It is not a battle confined to football but it is in football that the fighting is going to become most bitter. Who would you prefer to watch?

BOOKMAKERS everywhere were seen to be clambering on to their high-horses on Thursday when a survey of betting shop customers undertaken by the British Horseracing Board revealed that only 17 per cent of them felt strongly that bookies were honest.

Legal advice is being taken by the big bookmakers' organisations, from whom words like "slanderous" and "outrageous" poured furiously. While even the strongest punters went ashen-faced at the thought of bookies and lawyers ganging up against them - what a win double that would be - the chairman of the BHB, Peter Savill, fought back with characteristic bravery.

The betting industry, he said, had failed to accept its share of the responsibility for the health of racing and to pay racing a proper share of turnover. Their profits had more than trebled since 1995. The survey showed that 91 per cent of punters agreed that the bookies should pay a bigger levy to pep up prize-money and improve the quality of the sport.

But Chris Bell, managing director of Ladbrokes, called the survey an "absolute disgrace". He said: "If 83 per cent of our customers thought we were dishonest then we would not have a business turning over pounds 7 billion because punters would not darken our doors." But whose doors can they darken? Unless the Government orders the racing industry to take over betting, we're stuck with the big bookmaking chains - and they're stuck with our opinion of them. Although, I wouldn't use the word dishonest. They're just a little more parasitical than they need to be.

WHILE THE pain of England's early departure from the Cricket World Cup still lingers, there are one or two compensatory blessings. Chief among them is the temporary demobilisation of the Barmy Army whose persistently tuneless and banal chants have littered the atmosphere at many an England match.

However, other nuisances have conspired to make up for their absence. I refer not to the racket made by the supporters of such as India and Pakistan, who have made a major contribution to what carnival spirit there is, but to irritants for which the tournament sponsors, Vodafone, must take much of the blame. They are not responsible for all the mobile phones that seem to be permanently and monotonously on duty among the crowd but it was their brainwave to put on every seat a card bearing a 4 or a 6.

The waving of these may seem harmless fun but not if you happen to be sitting behind the more enthusiastic users. Friends of mine had their day ruined at Lord's on Wednesday by those in front of them leaping to their feet and brandishing their cards every time the ball looked to be heading for the boundary. Not only did this rob them of the sight of the ball crossing the rope but also of the several fine saves made by fielders. Who said mobile phones don't affect the brain?

HAVING ONLY recently acquired the technical wherewithal to tune in to Channel 5, I hadn't been exposed to the commentatory style of Jonathan Pearce prior to England's game in Bulgaria. I will reserve judgement but I could certainly do without the hysterics, and neither would I miss the exhaustive personal details he provides on every player.

The most bizarre came when Hristo Stoichkov brought his international career to an end when he was substituted during the second half. While the Bulgarian, one of the most gifted players of his generation, was taking a rapturous ovation from the home fans Pearce marked the occasion by giving us the totally inappropriate information that Stoichkov used to be a furniture salesman.

Perhaps, in his own way, he was indicating that not only could Stoichkov sell the defence a dummy whenever he chose to, he could have sold them a three-piece suite.