Football: The people's game becomes a political football

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The Independent Online
The FA were left "puzzled" by Sky Television's announcement on Friday night that ITV willscreen England's match against Italy in full at 10pm on Saturday, some 15 minutes after the final whistle. This was always going to be the case, the FA say, and does not alter their desire to see the match live on terrestrial TV.

"Our position is unchanged," said the FA spokesman Steve Double. "We think a game of this immense importance should be seen by as many people as possible and we are looking for a goodwill gesture from Sky."

Officials from Sky, their attempt to head off the request having failed, are now talking to lawyers and politicians and waiting to gauge public opinion before announcing - possibly tomorrow - whether they will accede to the FA's invitation to give up the exclusive live coverage they have bought for, I understand, a huge pounds 2.5m.

Normally, Sky would already have declined but this is not normally. They are entertaining the idea only because the Government will decide soon which sporting events should be "listed" for terrestrial TV. And Sky are, naturally, unwilling to offend the Government in case they lose access to certain events. Hence this weekend's talks.

Sky may be on uncertain legal ground should they cave in. Having sold dishes on the strength of their exclusive coverage - 21,000 in one week up to last Sunday, though this also had something to do with the Ryder Cup - they could be sued by disgruntled new subscribers.

Normally this column would hesitate to come to Sky's defence, as any organisation which makes more profit than Manchester United is big enough to take care of itself. In this case, though, one has to say they would be entirely justified in retaining their contract with the Italian broadcasting company RAI.

In the first place, neither ITV nor BBC ever put in a bid for the match; Channel 5 were Sky's only challengers. ITV were happy with their own deal. Sky believe that those non-subscribers who are unable to watch the match at a pub or club or friend's house with cable or satellite, will be satisfied with that arrangement.

Under a contract between Sky and the FA, a "decisive" England match being played at Wembley can go to terrestrial TV and the FA say they are simply asking Sky to extend that to a one-off away game of huge significance. Sky question whether, technically, it is decisive, though. England could lose and go into a play-off, the second leg of which will be decisive.

The FA, it seems, are being at best naive, at worst calculatingly political in seeking belatedly to uphold fans' rights. Why do they enter into lucrative pacts with Sky if they do not feel supporters are being best served?

Sky should keep their nerve and their coverage. Anyway, ITV's handling of football is so poor they scarcely deserve the match landing in their lap.

ON which subject, Brian Moore, ITV's commentator for Manchester United v Juventus, was his normal likeable and lilting self but this home-biased "now we have to keep it tight" stuff grates. It is sad when football descends to Ryder Cup level.

Sometimes European competition does bring out the worst in the English. Martin O'Neill, a handful for the fourth official during Leicester's Uefa Cup tie against Atletico Madrid on Tuesday, was claiming, for example, that his team should have had three penalties.

In reality, the second of Muzzy Izzet's tumbles might have been a foul but the referee had clearly decided from the player's first dive that he was not to be trusted. Had Izzet been a Spaniard behaving similarly, he would have been vilified.

O'Neill's anger at Garry Parker's bizarre second yellow card for taking a quick free-kick was more justifiable, but the offence is, believe it or not, actually cautionable. It is surprising that managers do not either bring in a referee or obtain a list of yellow card offences and spend a session briefing their players.

Incidentally, there is a spin-off for English referees from European week, it seems. "After some of the things that go on," one tells me, "they are usually grateful for us for a week or two at least."

LIVERPOOL'S Director of Youth, Steve Heighway, was pondering the acronym of the new Football Association Coaches' Association at its launch last Thursday. "I firmly believe we should ban all cockneys from the organisation," he said.

MORE on the game's new glossary. My young son wonders where lies this line that defenders are urged to hold. Does it have anything to do with what the wall do with their hands at free kicks, he asks?

Not quite, I say, and tell him not to confuse it with the line led by a striker, or the one down which full-backs are urged to belt the ball.

It is, rather, an imaginary line across the field and those who do not hold it are guilty of losing their shape and likely to be told off by the manager. His reaction? "Yes but..."

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