Peter Corrigan: Whitehall masters the art of passing the buck

Click to follow
The Independent Online

One of the most haunting sporting pictures to claim a permanent place in my memory was of the England football team giving the Nazi salute before playing Germany in Berlin in 1938. That image forced its way to the front of the mind over the past few days while the controversy over the England cricket team's tour of Zimbabwe in September raged.

One of the most haunting sporting pictures to claim a permanent place in my memory was of the England football team giving the Nazi salute before playing Germany in Berlin in 1938. That image forced its way to the front of the mind over the past few days while the controversy over the England cricket team's tour of Zimbabwe in September raged.

Admittedly, comparisons between the two situations are difficult to come by. The shameful and reluctantly offered "Heil Hitler" salutes represented a diplomatic capitulation at a time when the starting gun for the Second World War was on a hair trigger. Despite the horrors of Zimbabwe, that's not the sort of dilemma under discussion this weekend.

The principle, however, is basically the same, and it is inevitable that sport's relationship with the outside world will encounter conflicts of interest. There's nothing new in that, nor in the danger that it can be taken too far. It would be absurd, for instance, if the West Indies cricket authorities decided to cancel England's upcoming tour because they disagreed with Tony Blair's proposal for university top-up fees, but don't put it beyond some sporting bodies to rise high above their station in life.

The same goes for politicians, and the Olympic movement did well to survive the Cold War boycotts that affected the Moscow and Los Angeles Games in the 1980s. Since many politicians feel that sport's main, if not only, usefulness is as part of their weaponry, that is an ever- present threat. Neither are governments keen on a sport acting on its own values, unless it suits them.

There was no doubt whose will was being obeyed by the England team in Berlin. When the players, who included Stanley Matthews, were in the dressing room getting changed they were told the German team would salute our anthem and that they were expected to give the Nazi stiff-arm in return. There was uproar, and the captain, Eddie Hapgood, told officials they would stand to attention but no more.

No less a figure than Sir Neville Henderson, British Ambassador to Berlin, then appeared in front of the players and instructed them to do what they were told. He said the situation was so sensitive that it needed "only a spark to set Europe alight". The England team were certainly set alight, and their 6-3 victory would have been all the sweeter for the humiliation they felt they had suffered. At least they had a straight and firm instruction.

Our cricketers are unlikely to get that from today's government in relation to Zimbabwe. Once more Whitehall will want the England and Wales Cricket Board to shoulder the decision, and the consequent financial penalties, as they did when refusing to travel to Zimbabwe in the World Cup last year.

It was as a result of that confused and fudged fiasco that the ECB were determined to make an emphatic and early decision about travelling to the African country in October. This led to the publication last week of a paper prepared by former campaigner and journalist Des Wilson, now chairman of the ECB's corporate affairs and marketing advisory committee, designed to help them decide on the suitability of tours on security and other grounds, including moral questions.

The proposals are due to be discussed at a meeting this week, and it would have been better had the paper not been made public beforehand. But it is out now. and the row we would have had sooner or later is noisily in progress. Wilson's argument that his sport has the right to decide when and where they take their team met one of its first opponents in Lord Coe who, when he was a mere Sebastian, defied Margaret Thatcher's boycott of the Moscow Games with brilliant results.

He contends that you must never allow sport to become the victim of any kind of outside political pressure. Sporting competition should stand apart from any consideration, moral or otherwise.

Sound stuff; but I'm not sure his argument has enough blanket quality to cover every sporting eventuality. The merits of not travelling to Zimbabwe are resoundingly high. It doesn't help that Robert Mugabe, the despot who has murdered his country, is the patron of Zimbabwe cricket. To tour there would give a direct boost to his standing in the eyes of his countrymen and their neighbours.

After all the fuss and bother Tony Blair kicked up last year at the Commonwealth Conference about Zimbabwe, which resigned from the Commonwealth as a result, it would be ludicrous for the England cricketers to bowl up as if nothing has happened.

The Government can stop it and save the ECB vast expense in compensation payments and sanctions from the International Cricket Council, who have warned that "where a government falls short of taking strong and positive action... a tour should proceed".

By Friday evening, the most the ECB had squeezed out of Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was that he urged them not to go. He said the situation in Zimbabwe was worse than when England called off last year's visit. Then he quietly passed the buck by adding the killer postscript that the decision was up to them.

The ECB will debate the matter this week and spend a few weeks considering all the implications before announcing a decision before the end of February. It may sound perverse, but you almost hope they decide to go just to embarrass this government for their spinelessness. But they will probably ask what any sensible organisation would ask.

What would please the monster Mugabe most, for England to tour or not to tour? Once you have calculated the answer, it seems logical to do precisely the opposite as early and as enthusiastically as possible.

Interfering with play

Fifa are to discuss next month the use of communications equipment between a manager and his players during a match. Experiments in Belgium involving a goalkeeper with an earpiece receiving instructions from the coach to be passed on to the team have proved successful enough to deserve further consideration.

I would prefer it if they concentrated on communicating with the referee to give him advice on borderline decisions. Why encourage managers to interfere while the game is on? Can you imagine the bollockings the goalie will get via the earpiece if he dives the wrong way? I'm all in favour of removing frantic managers from their touchline patrols, but I'm not sure they should be allowed to communicate with their players by other means.

If you would care to employ a top body-language expert he or she would confirm that what the gesticulating managers are achieving is not the imparting of instructions and inspiration to their team. Rather, each manager is intent on sending a series of coded messages to the fans and, more importantly, the directors. These range from a display of annoyance that his players are clearly ignoring instructions to move upfield and score goals, and that it isn't his fault they are losing, to a set of mannerisms designed to show he is guiding them like a puppeteer.

Managers have plenty of chances before the game and at half-time to impart their wisdom. Once the match begins they should allow the players to get on with it and earn their fabulous wages with instinctive and imaginative play. The game might even improve.