Comment: No excuse for leaving the faithful blind

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The Independent Online
SPORT'S INABILITY to make adequate and equitable arrangements for all its followers probably dates back to when Goliath's fans were put in the front and, despite the many advances man has made in the millenniums since, it must be doubted if perfection will ever be approached in the matter of ensuring that the most deserving bums get placed on the right seats with the minimum of fuss and bother.

Why this should be is difficult to explain. Even a generous understanding of the problems involved will not lead you to a sympathetic view of the chaos that seems inevitable when there are tickets to be distributed for a major event.

With the complete ticketing mess into which the French collapsed before and during 1998 World Cup we seemed to have reached a nadir from where the rest of the world could only climb up to more efficient and fairer systems.

Alas, the Rugby World Cup in Wales - and all points north, east, west and south - has continued the descent, and if anyone feels inclined to mock they are not likely to be connected with the Football Associations of England and Scotland whose attempts to fill Hampden Park and Wembley Stadium with the worthiest of their supporters have come close to comic. If they can't select a decent crowd, what chance have they got with the team?

It will not end there, unfortunately. Early rumbles from the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney suggest an imbalance in best-seat allocation that is already sowing the seeds of revolt among the lower orders. The quicker the Queen can get her head removed from the tickets the better.

Perhaps, we shouldn't be surprised when admission to big sporting events falls into the same category as any other earthly delight to which applies the old dictum that there's one law for the rich and another for the poor. We are all aware that you get only what you can pay for.

But since many sports have reached their present eminence on the backs, not to mention the legs, of the poor it is not making extreme demands to expect their contribution to be recognised. I am sure that such a philosophy exists among sporting administrators but their attempts to ensure that a satisfactory ration of tickets reaches them are usually pathetic.

One aspect of the forthcoming matches between England and Scotland is that known trouble-makers on both sides (I mean the supporters, not the teams) are being served with restraining orders that will have them reporting to the local police at kick-off time. It has taken them long enough to crack down on habitual hooligans - hampered, I admit, by little or no practical help from the government - but at least they seem to be getting somewhere.

If only they would take the same trouble to identify the good supporters and make some gesture towards rewarding them with access to big matches. The attempts made to sell tickets by telephone for Hampden and Wembley were appallingly crass and haphazard and deserved the derision they have caused.

What was wrong with allocating them all via the clubs in each country? It would not have taken a mastermind to ensure that the tickets reached genuine fans. Precautions would have had to be taken against them being snaffled by directors and players who are entitled to an allocation, but from whom a well-worn trail leads to the ticket touts.

Not that we can lay the entire blame on the touts. Despicable as they may be, they have become an integral part of the ticket distribution network and at least they do duty outside the grounds and are subject to the rise and fall of demands.

More insidious are the increasing bands of faithful supporters. Not those faithful to a club or a game but faithful to the companies for whom they can do favours. Theirs is a rich reward. It is not to the glory of sport that many of the best seats at any given top event are likely to be occupied by some who have performed a certain service for the right people.

Sport has replaced axle grease as the main lubricant of the wheels of commerce and, in many cases, corporate hospitality is a euphemism for bribery and corruption. A mild form, it is true, and maybe an unavoidable consequence of our age but not something with which we should be content.

Certain sports have already been lost to the supporters who pay only in kind. It is not too late for football and rugby to contrive a way to improve a dangerous situation in which their roots are fast being outgrown.

On the next cold, wet and ordinary day when the faithful are gathered for a match of no visible lustre, the leaders of our national games might ask themselves: "They are always there for us, are we always there for them?"

WHEN WE come to make the final weighing up of the Rugby World Cup, it'll be the little things that rankle. On Friday, the RWC chairman, Leo Williams, offered a typically frank and honest admission about the shortcomings of their organisation and in the days to come there will continue to be criticisms homing in from many directions.

This is just and proper as long as we don't confine our complaints to one target. Two weeks ago, in this space, I pointed out the appalling lack of support the tournament received from the government. Money, time and effort has been poured into the campaign to bring the 2006 World Cup to England but hardly an extra official penny has been invested in helping the success of this event.

As for hospitality, our leaders seem not to have been aware that we have had the best rugby players in the world here - although we were not short of chiefs for the final yesterday. A team of six Fifa officials were here last week to run the rule over our 2006 claim and met Prince Charles, the Prime Minister and God knows who else on a lavish four-day visit.

Has one rugby man crossed the portals of Downing Street or Buckingham Palace? If it happened, I apologise for missing it. But let's forget that and concentrate on the other pains we've taken to make sure this has been a memorable occasion for our visitors.

The game between New Zealand and South Africa in Cardiff on Thursday was only for third place but involved two of the world's greatest rugby countries, who were very well represented among the 60,000 crowd. The match kicked off at 8pm and finished at about 9.45pm - 20 minutes after the last train had left Cardiff Central for London.

When taxed about this, the railway company said that they didn't have the rolling stock available. It was the same excuse they have given on every Cardiff match-day when trains from London have been so packed they haven't been able to pick up passengers at Swindon and Bristol.

But even that wasn't as bad as leaving visitors without a way back to London. There wasn't an available bed to be had within a 50-mile radius, so there's no telling how many were affected.

The railway may not be the only culprit. There is no discernible reason why Thursday's match kicked off as late as 8pm - yet another unforced error - but that should not hide the total lack of official interest there has been in this World Cup. Our teams didn't do all that well, but for Britain generally, this event has been a bloody disgrace. What a shame that sport doesn't have a lousy hosts award.