Two rivals - one inferiority complex

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The rarity of a sporting victory over Australia – be it at cricket or tiddlywinks – means that every drop of essential oil has to be distilled from the celebrations. You have no idea how long the bottle might have to last. So, 20 years on last Monday, the miracle of Headingley '81 was invoked, with Mark Butcher (Ian Botham) and Nasser Hussain (Mike Brearley) cast as heroes of the remake.

Just one little difference. In 1981, the game mattered and England won it. In 2001, the Ashes were gone and Australia lost it. Any other interpretation of a thunderingly gratifying, but ultimately futile, victory is a wanton distortion of the truth, a confirmation of just how deep the acceptance of Aussie dominance has burrowed into the national psyche.

This is, of course, an appropriate week to be reflecting on ancient national rivalries and the indefinable hold that history can take on a mere sporting contest. Bat and ball at Headingley and The Oval, boot and ball in the Olympic Stadium in Munich next Saturday evening when England's hopes of automatic qualification for the 2002 World Cup will depend on Sven Goran Eriksson's ability to press the delete button on the nation's video. All England know what happens when we play Germany at football – one scrappy victory in Euro 2000 apart – just as they know what happens when England play Australia at cricket. Very occasionally and dramatically we win, mostly we lose. But does a Swedish coach know or care? Eriksson was professing ignorance last week, preferring a little light background music to the Wagnerian thunder and lightning which generally accompany the reunion of England and Germany.

Neutrality is probably the wise approach, not least with young multi-millionaires who are not prone to belting out the words of the national anthem like Terry Butcher, but Eriksson might like to compare notes with Duncan Fletcher, his opposite number at Lord's, who has spent his summer sweeping up the pieces of shattered illusions, not least his own.

Why is it, Fletcher must have wondered on those long, hot, afternoons, that a team moulded by 18 months of success, against Zimbabwe, his own country, West Indies, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, a team that had developed resilience, team spirit, a sense of community, mateship even, should go weak at the knees at the first whisper of "G'day"? He must have known something inexplicable and very English was afoot when he heard Nasser Hussain, an otherwise hard and impressive captain, talk of "earning the respect" of the Aussies before a ball had been bowled. Respect is earned by winning, and is an aim only for those who believe they will lose.

I doubt if Fletcher, himself an inspirational leader in the days when Zimbabwe were a non-Test playing nation, ever took to the field with "earning respect" heading his list of ambitions. Nor does it claim much of a place in Eriksson's recently published thoughts on football. And it was, presumably, this sort of attitude which Steve Waugh was alluding to when he spoke last week of his surprise at the country's culture of negativity.

Waugh promised a more detailed analysis of the failings at the end of the series which, at the time, Australia looked set to take 5-0. One hopes he will not be diverted from keeping his word by one setback because, from the moment he confronted the England batsmen with a row of slips, a gully and a short-leg at the start of a one-day international at Old Trafford, Waugh has conducted a summer-long master class in psychology. His debrief will be compulsory listening. A tape might even be mailed to the headquarters of the Football Association.

The understandable back-slapping at Headingley 2001 was tempered by a sense of irritation. Not for the first time, England gave the stable door a hearty slam when the horses were grazing happily in the outback. Released from the pressure of having to win, England won. Knowing the job was done, the Australians lost, which merely confirmed what we already knew about the prevailing mental strength of the two teams. Like Lance Armstrong waiting for Jan Ullrich to recover from a crash in the Tour de France, so comfortable are the Aussies in their superiority, they can afford to be generous – cocky is an alternative adjective – and to cut the margins between winning and losing to the bare minimum. Hey, mate, fancy a game? Sometimes, when Mark Butcher decides to play like Gary Sobers, you lose, but, in defeat, not only did the Australians tighten their grip on England's throat, they behaved with a robust generosity which spoke more for their status as world champions than any number of laps of honour.

By late on Saturday, Eriksson too might be dimly aware, like Fletcher, of forces at work beyond his objective understanding. The incalculable benefit for our national football team is that Eriksson's England will go to Munich stripped of the phony patriotism which has repeatedly been used to mask the inadequacies of our preparation. The additional bonus, for all of us, is that England's fate on Saturday will not be decided by a penalty shoot-out.

An off day too far

Why is the start of the Premiership season like the start of a horse race? Because in both cases, the commentator cries: "and they're off". Nine red cards in the first five days, including two each from Tottenham (David Elleray) and Leeds (Jeff Winter) has hardly been an auspicious start to the new era of professional referees, unless a productivity clause has been secretly inserted in their contracts.

This season, referees will be fitter, better prepared, more in tune with the demands of the modern game, at least that is what we have been promised in return for £60,000 a year. Yet already the paying punter – armchair or live – has once again had to suffer football's equivalent of the peace process, a well-rehearsed ritual which involves a lot of whingeing by players and managers, a whole pack of red cards and, finally, an uneasy deal on the decommissioning of certain tackles which could have been brokered before a player had been kicked.

This season, referees have been instructed to referee safely, which means keeping strict hold of the reins of authority. On paper, that is a logical instruction. On the field, it leads to untold frustration. Admittedly, Leeds against Arsenal requires the deployment of a UN peace-keeping force, but nothing is designed to upset players, managers and fans more than the wilful refusal by referees to play advantage. On Tuesday night at Highbury and at Anfield last Saturday, Jeff Winter dismally failed to apply the law, notably in blowing up for a foul on Patrick Vieira which the Frenchman's skill had already punished. Arsenal lost a good field position; Leeds happily regrouped for the free-kick. No one was booked.

Football has already adopted rugby union's idea of penalising dissent by moving a free-kick 10 yards forward – Winter penalised Paolo Di Canio twice for the offence at Anfield – so why not also apply rugby's interpretation of advantage by allowing play to continue beyond the foul so that the extent of the advantage can be calculated? Any more of this safety-first refereeing and the Premiership will be reduced to seven-a-side.

The Cup runneth over... and over

This is the FA speaking: "Due to circumstances entirely within the remote control of television, third round FA Cup ties will be played on a rolling 24-hour basis starting at midnight on Saturday, 5 January, 2002 and ending at midnight on Monday, 7 January, 2002.

"We apologise for any inconvenience caused to the undesirable minority who might want to watch their teams live at a reasonable hour of the day or those dreadful stick-in-the-muds who prefer their football served up exclusively at 3pm on Saturdays. But, what can you do? I mean, television pays all this money and who are we to say to stop them doing what they want?

"What's that? Yes, I know we are the game's governing body, but, with the best will in the world, I don't see what that's got to do with it. Oh yes, the FA Cup final? That has been moved to Kuala Lumpur. Live, peak time for the Asian market. They're suckers for tradition out there, you know."