Football: Sacchi is my hero in a tale of planes and automobiles

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The Independent Online
DENNIS BERGKAMP is right. Six hours in and around a Florentine departure lounge on Wednesday convinced me that the avoidance of air travel, at all costs, is the sensible thing.

Bergkamp's non-flying policy is, of course, based on a genuine phobia which goes seriously beyond the tedium of plane delays. How, though, I craved a seat in his father-in-law's car home as minute followed wasted minute and airport misinformation reached new levels of ineptitude. Kanu's missed penalty ought to have represented the worst inconvenience of the season's first Champions' League trip. Not now.

Assuming the Dutch driver left Florence as I checked in (which he didn't) and drove in a straight north-westward line (which seems improbable) along uncluttered motorways, it's my very approximate estimate that, by the time my plane took off, he was somewhere between Dijon and Paris. Presumably, an hour or so later, I would have been flying over the top of him; but, in circumstances like these, you don't expect to have to come back from behind.

The first hour of news on the airport TV was fine, if a little unnerving for its top story being the plane crash in southern Spain - hardly ideal pre-flight material. But, if you go beyond that with any rolling news service - however excellent - the script becomes gratingly familiar, as do the previous night's Worthington Cup goals. By the time of the third delay, I was confidently predicting Tranmere's next scorer and wincing in advance at the awful plight of Portsmouth's unfortunate fainting goalkeeper, Aaron Flahavan.

Needless to say, as late morning became late lunch, stoicism turned to irascibility. Air Meridiana (for it was they) had recovered from the original problem of air traffic congestion, but now had a problem with the plane. When they found a plane that worked, they missed a take-off slot because of "catering difficulties." Soon, they were apparently inventing projected take-off times before uninterestedly failing to meet them. Air Meridiana offer the only direct London-Florence service. In future, I may fly to Pisa and walk a few miles.

It was time for action. There was a growing and horrifying possibility that I wasn't going to be home in time for Des's first words on ITV (or, incidentally, the match that followed them). A couple of similarly stranded colleagues were due to be working on the Chelsea game. For effect (though quite what effect I don't know), I lied to the harassed stewardess that I was, too.

We were invited up to see the boss, fed all sorts of stuff about needing permission from Brussels and warned that our wait may still have a couple of hours to run. No one was going to make Chelsea.

Then, as we rounded on the man from the airline one last desperate time, a smallish man with close-cropped silver-grey hair walked past us and into the office. Gabriel Clarke (the ITV reporter at the Fiorentina match) took me aside conspiratorially. "You know who that is, don't you?" Shamefully - albeit, in mitigation, wildly out of context - I didn't. It was Arrigo Sacchi.

Of course it was. This was the man who took Italy to within a penalty or two of lifting the World Cup in the United States and who, before that, had created the formidable Milan side of the late 1980s-early 1990s: Rijkard, Gullit, Van Basten et al.

In Italy this week, his debut appearance on TV Champions' League coverage have been trumpeted in much the same way as our Mr Lynam's. He had done his bit in Florence and now he was on his way to Stamford Bridge, or was meant to be.

His English isn't brilliant, but he seemed happy to be engaged in limited conversation by his new transcontinental TV colleagues. What about Tuesday's match? "I like Arsenal; Vieira, he is a great player, so strong, good tackles, good passing. I like Adams and Keown, great English defenders." Sacchi, it was clear, rates Arsenal highly.

But there was, of course, a more pressing issue. "Mr Sacchi," I volunteered, "I fear you may not get to broadcast tonight." Seemingly, he didn't have the English vocabulary to respond, because at that stage he resumed in his native tongue, looking to a female member of staff to translate: "If I am not at Chelsea on time, six million viewers will know what has happened at Florence airport today." He smiled charmingly throughout.

Perhaps it was a complete coincidence, perhaps not. But, as if by magic, the omnipotence of Brussels air traffic control suddenly seemed to vanish. No more than five minutes after the former national coach uttered these words, the airline boss was triumphantly announcing an immediately-available take-off slot. Sacchi was our hero.

n PS: I still missed the start of Chelsea-Milan. Trouble on the M25. You don't want to go by car, Dennis. Try flying.

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