Football: Competitive edge Blattered into submission

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The Independent Online
ALMOST unnoticed amid the media bombardment that preceded last night's World Cup qualifier between Italy and England flew a menacing little missile fired by Sepp Blatter, the secretary general of Fifa, which is the organisation that rules the world of football. When it landed, Blatter's small bombshell made hardly any impact but I suspect there was a delayed fuse in the message it contained: "In the football of the future," he said, "we have to ban tackling."

Had Fleet Street's finest not been heavily engaged in dispatching the rockets of hype that lit up the sky over the Olympic Stadium, in Rome, long before the floodlights were switched on, there is no doubt they would have leaped on that remark like scavenging dogs. Alas, only the odd flea- bitten cur has been available to attend to Sepp's sacrilege.

In an attempt to place the secretary-general's words into a more meaningful context, another official, Keith Cooper, explained that Fifa's intentions were merely to eradicate "aggressive tackling". Since a tackle that cannot be described as aggressive is more of a cuddle than a tackle, this did not succeed in its attempt to be reassuring.

However, these enlightened days require us not to be immediately dismissive of any move designed to remove the rough edges from our civilisation. This was emphasised last week at Blackpool. If the Conservative Party can give unmarried mothers an encouraging pat on the head, wink at gays and talk about compassion without the trace of a snarl perhaps we shouldn't bridle at football's leaders when they talk of making players act in a more kindly way to each other.

The difference is that while the Conservatives have a sudden need to be nice to anyone in order to be re-elected, those who control Fifa at the top are a permanent ruling force whose power is not dependent on a popular vote. There is an old saying about power that I can't quite recall but contains something like the thought that absolute power makes you absolutely bonkers and it is comforting to recall that Fifa have had crazy ideas in the past that have come to nothing. Recently, these have included making the goals bigger to encourage more scoring. Had that notion been adopted, Dennis Bergkamp would be getting five goals a game on a bad day. Not that Fifa would be concerned if he did. Before the World Cup in the United States in 1994, they seriously suggested that a football match should consist of four quarters instead of two halves. This would have yielded more advertising spots on television which, like bigger goals, would assist their desperate attempt to convert the US to football and thus bring them a new market rich beyond compare.

Who is to say that this latest attempt to sanitise the game isn't propelled by the same desire. The Americans can't abide games in which the scoreboard isn't guaranteed to be subject to plenty of action. Blatter considers tackling is counter-productive to higher scoring and that it cannot be right for players like Marco van Basten, Rudi Voller or Ronaldo to be "kicked to bits".

"Those are exactly the players the fans want to see," he says. This may well be true but they like to see them in the context of a competitive game, using their skills to rise above those who seek to contain them. Hobble the defenders and I am sure we would see more of the stars, but how long would that would appeal to the aficionados?

Predictably, what little reaction has come after Blatter's suggestion originates from those whose reputations in the game were made through their ability to wrest the ball from the toes of the more gifted. Tommy Smith, the former Liverpool defensive hard man, told the Daily Mail: "Take tackling out of it and you might as well as well hand it over to the pansies and the girls and shut the gates. No one will want to watch it. It will take the heart out of the game."

Ron "Chopper" Harris, who once tackled fiercely on Chelsea's behalf, responded in the same vein and accused the foreigners of already turning football into a non-contact sport. "It is all this diving about trying to get penalties they should stop, not honest tackling," he said.

But tackle-lovers are not confined to the birthplace of the game. Bertie Vogts, now the coach of the German national team but who once was saddled with the name Dirtie Bertie, agreed that one-on-one challenges are part of football.

Many such sentiments will no doubt flood into Fifa now that their views are out in the open. The proposal has already been discussed by the International Board, the rule-making authority, and it will be back on their agenda for more serious consideration next March - ample time for it to be kicked to death.

Unless they intend to remove all bodily contact from football, as they do in netball and basketball, it is hard to imagine how they can filter the tougher tackles from the game. It is true that, over the years, football has become less physical. I bumped into Trevor Ford the other day and it wasn't that long ago that he was barging goalkeepers to his heart's content. Indeed, there are still those who believe that 'keepers are over- protected.

To believe that you can legislate against the tackle without changing the entire character of the game indicates a lack of thought about the consequences. The best players thrive on having defenders coming at them in tackling mode. It is in those situations they can best use their skills to catch their opponents off balance and slip past them.

There is a disparity of skill between the 22 players on every pitch and there hasn't been a rule change yet that hasn't seen the lesser talented adapt their game to counteract superior techniques. Take away the tackle and defenders will have to lay off and jockey their men, which is bound to make for more crowded penalty areas, alter the tempo and reduce those split-second flashes of action that make the modern game so thrilling.

The older folk among us will see the sport they revere changed beyond recognition. There is no point in giving the Americans a game they find more palatable if they alienate its natural homelands. What is a man without his tackle?

FRESH from a touch of rabble-rousing at the Conservative conference, Jeffrey Archer was to be found on Thursday playing a game of snooker against Ken Doherty outside the Palace of Westminster.

The occasion was to mark Lord Archer's installation as president of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association; an appointment aimed at raising the profile of the game and providing his Lordship with another opportunity to prove his earthliness.

What with David Mellor as head of the Football Task Force, sport is finding plenty of work for idle Tory grandees. And a good thing, too. Rubbing shoulders with the common man is good for the lost soul and it is only a matter of time before John Major finds a niche in cricket. It's a shame more of the deposed haven't felt the need to lower their horizons. Michael Howard would undoubtedly benefit from a spell as chairman of Millwall FC, Michael Portillo would make an excellent patron of the English Women's Netball Association and Lord Tebbit would be a sensation as president of the Brixton athletic club.