Football: England show a soft side

Hoddle's men subdue their natural instincts under referee Durkin's scrutiny in a lucklustre farewell display; Norman Fox watches the hard men take a more gentle approach at Wembley
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The Independent Online
EVER since Lord Kinnaird's wife was asked whether she feared her husband would come home from playing for the Wanderers with a broken leg and replied "Don't worry, it will not be one of his own", football in Britain has been a lot more aggressive than its timid description as a mere "physical contact" game.

Over a century later, England's World Cup hopes rest uneasily on the ability of their players to acknowledge, however reluctantly and against their whole upbringing, that the unworldly international federation (Fifa) is determinedly moving towards a non-contact sport.

Yesterday, Wembley offered the first opportunity to see whether Glenn Hoddle's sensible idea of calling in a World Cup referee, Paul Durkin, for a "teach- in" about what they can expect in France had tempered the ill-tempered, curbed the tackle from behind and generally made the England side less likely to finish some of their matches in France with fewer players than they began.

Circumstances were significantly different than they will be in the intensity of real competition. Saudi Arabia were transparently ambitious only for presenting themselves well and not risking a morale-damaging defeat. Yet there was a distinct feeling that all of the England squad had given a fair hearing to Durkin or were under orders to subdue their national instinct for getting "involved".

Six free-kicks against them in the whole game; surely a record. But much of that could be accounted for by the way Saudi Arabia played, cautiously protecting themselves from an England side that throughout, and even when Paul Gascoigne arrived, was fearfully short of ideas. And it also seemed the case of being fearful about playing their naturally aggressive game.

David Batty, prime candidate for trouble in France, chased and harried, usually without coming within yards of his quarry. So if, for whatever reason, physical contact is to be absent from his game there seems little point in having him in midfield at all. On the two occasions he did intercept characteristically, even this lenient referee awarded free-kicks against him. So heaven help him in France.

That England conceded so few free-kicks and that they showed little competitive spirit were perhaps linked. Or was it simply that yet again opposition that a few years ago would have offered no threat here had skills that had the crowd so desperate to see Gascoigne?

The outcome of yesterday's match, which defied the absurd "farewell" hype, suggested problems ahead that will not want to be exacerbated by having England depleted by sendings-off. Seemingly Fifa are still deliberating over the actual interpretation they will expect of referees in the controversial matter of the tackle from behind, but there is not much doubt that a far stricter application of the laws is going to be seen from the beginning of the World Cup.

Contrary to some reports the tackle from behind, as such, is not going to be banned. It will be allowed providing the tackler takes the ball cleanly without endangering the player in possession. Has no one at Fifa seen the cheating that is rife in today's game? How do you dispossess a player from behind without some contact? And the slightest of contacts will bring a screaming opponent to the ground, followed by a finger pointed accusingly at the other player and demands for the red card.

What, for England's players, will probably be of greater threat is the likelihood of being carded for doing the sort of things that are commonplace in the British leagues: the use of elbows, blocking with no attempt to get the ball (as seen by Tony Adams yesterday, though only once), unbalancing opponents and making all manner of "contact" that a referee under Fifa's influence will construe as endangering the safety of the opponent.

The thrust of the debate is not about Alan Shearer. Referees going to France have been advised that they must give the benefit of doubt to the attacking player - especially in those six of one, half a dozen of the other tussles in which Shearer is so often involved.

Quite simply, Shearer mustavoid doing anything as blatantly dangerous and avoidable as everyone recently observed, apart from the protective and forgiving Football Association.