Football: Bad blood, bad mouthing, bad business

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The Independent Online
Considering how so many footballers appear to loathe and detest each other and are so readily prompted to physical confrontation, it is remarkable that we don't hear of them meeting behind the grandstand after the game to settle their differences in private.

We don't hear about it, of course, because they never do. It is difficult to decide whether this is because their belligerence fades when there aren't thousands watching and a referee to intervene or because they only fight in the firm's time.

But the game would be spared much of these tedious histrionics if they observed the time-honoured custom among gentlemen of all classes of taking their arguments outside and either putting up their dukes or having an animated argument. Once their dubious honour has been satisfied, they can shake hands and forget about it.

Not so our brave boys in the pretty shirts. If they have a bust-up, they keep the feud going for years and use it to ruin perfectly good football matches like Wednesday's Premiership game at Highbury where we had Arsenal playing Manchester United with additional dialogue from Ian Wright and Peter Schmeichel.

We are now told that both face dire consequences. They can't be dire enough for me because it is about time we began to clamp down heavily on this sort of behaviour. It will not be easy; it seems that our main sports have developed the capacity to engender the basest of feelings between participants. Indeed, an aggressive attitude against the opposition is actively encouraged as part of the team ethic. Little cameos of sportsmanship such as handing the ball to an opponent, which used to earn a ripple of appreciative applause from the bob banks of yore, are now a rarity and would be regarded as a treasonable act.

It is by no means certain that the sports, I'm thinking mainly of football but the two rugbys have their moments, have become any tougher as a result. They used to indulge in some rugged battles in the old days - and had bigger boots to dish it out with, but the impression is that there is a touch more genuine nastiness in the air and a recognisable assent from supporters that this should be so. Perhaps it was always like this and we have become more aware of the players' feelings for each other because the increasingly intrusive cameras permit us every expression and mouthed insult in revealing close-up. But there is no doubt that the face of the snarling player has become far more part of the scene.

It is Ian Wright's misfortune that he has a snarl that could curdle Guinness and I am sure that the frequency with which he bestows it on all those not wearing the same colour shirt prevents many from showing their full admiration for his incisive talents as a front player. He also allows the same instinct that controls his facial muscles to determine the course of his boots and his appalling two- footed tackle on Schmeichel must not go unpunished even though the referee and his assistants neglected to consider it worthy of action.

We have since learned that Schmeichel is facing prosecution for racist remarks to Wright in a game last November. My sympathies are with Schmeichel in this because verbal anger, if not excusable in this context, is preferable to the physical variety. It is bad enough when foul play on the pitch finds its way into the courts but it is ridiculous if a remark under the pressures of a game is going to be taken as seriously.

Sporting insults are not as normal insults. Just as sport is a step removed from the actualities of life so even the strongest of its language has a hollow ring, being empty of real intent. Most referees recognise this. What sort of bastard you are depends on whatever is immediately apparent. It could be your colour, your nationality, your height or anything. The reason this is still hanging over Schmeichel is that the Crown Prosecution Service have yet to make a decision - the bureaucratic bastards.

What the goalkeeper should have done, of course, was to apologise. He's probably been called a Danish variety often enough since he's been here but if players were prepared to treat the end of the match as the opportunity to claim absolution from each other for all the indiscretions of the previous 90 minutes it would help.

Managers can also make a contribution. Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson must surely have been aware of the bad feeling between the two. If they were, nothing was done about it and both clubs have narrowly avoided losing two vital players for the rest of the season - Schmeichel with a broken leg and Wright with a lengthy suspension. What happened at Highbury last week is worth a few moments reflection from the entire game.

SPORT is guaranteed a lively role in the run-up to the General Election as the various associations put pressure on the parties to speed up the flow of Lottery money into the needy areas of sport.

What they called "a crisis in sports funding" was discussed at a meeting of top sporting bodies hosted by the Rugby Football Union at Twickenham on Thursday. It was arranged by the Lottery Promotion Company who were instrumental in creating the swell of support that led to the National Lottery being introduced.

But, although the Lottery has been a resounding success, the proceeds are progressing at a painfully slow pace to the more deserving areas. While the elite of sporting participants have benefited richly and hundreds of millions allocated to rebuilding stadiums and that great pie in the sky, the British Academy of Sport, the message to the politicians is: "There is an urgent need for investment in grass roots coaching/ youth development in all sports which is grossly underfunded at present."

The Government, which is sitting comfortably on about pounds 2.5bn of Lottery profits with no apparent desire to speed up their distribution, will be urged to lift the restrictions that are stopping the flow.

The sports expect to have to fight every inch of the way and already there are signs of attempts to undermine their campaign but there is much at stake, not least the future health of British sport. The organisers, Camelot, are taking the brunt of the Lottery criticism at the moment but the next few months could see the accusing eye transferred to those supposed to be sharing out the money is a fair and creative manner.

FAR from welcoming the thought of stands full of beaming fans, the Football Association are determined to outlaw the new craze of using laser pens that can project a thin and powerful beam 100 yards. The pens are useful for teachers to highlight points on a blackboard but a nuisance and a danger when aimed at players' eyes.

With suggestions for technological aids flooding the game these days, it was only to be expected that the louts would be at the forefront of innovation. At least, their idea was more ingenious than the latest notion from Fifa to stage penalty shoot-outs before extra time to take the pressure off players.

Don't they realise that the team winning the shoot-out would then have every incentive to put up the shutters and kill extra time stone dead? There are brains in football crying out for a little ray of light.