Football: Time for return of characters

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The Independent Online
DOUBTLESS, there are people who take one glance at Andre Agassi and yearn for a time in tennis when not an eyebrow was raised over standards of dress and deportment.

Agassi is the game's gadfly. He looks like the kind of young fellow you expect to see in the queue for Wimbledon. He drinks beer from a bottle. If he showed up at a jumble sale, somebody might try to buy him. There's hardly a tennis convention that hasn't been bruised by Agassi's eccentricity.

So why did a wave of relief sweep through tennis on Sunday when Agassi defeated Michael Stich to win the US Open Championship? Because a scruffy artist had halted the relentless progress of men who are house painters by comparison.

It's all very well for people to enthuse over efficiency in sport, but a big danger today is that athletic and technical advances will leave us disastrously short of personalities.

The fault, it is tempting to say, lies with the clamour for success on the playing field and the muddle-headed notion that nothing much can be achieved without eliminating risk.

It may be that the wishes and feelings of spectators may have to alter considerably, because the way things are moving there will not be a figure in sport who stands out from the rest.

To my mind, the great impact of Agassi's success is the confusion it must have brought to the minds of coaches so committed to heavy bombardment you would think artistry had never been invented.

I may have seemed to be reacting so far in the veteran's standard fashion to changes in sport, but surely no one can dispute the importance of personalities.

A significant feature of the recent World Cup was that it did not announce a major new talent, the most prominent attackers were nearly all of a generation which will have had its day when the next finals come around.

It says something about the present state of professional boxing that Mike Tyson, who will not be released from prison until next year, remains the only fighter, including Lennox Lewis, who can positively be indentified as a major international attraction.

I may be on dangerous ground, but there is very little to suggest that we are likely to be struck by a lightning bolt of individual presence.

Do you remember when genuine personalities appeared to be thick on the ground? Maybe not. Maybe, the thought is only a distortion of time, though I recall when a sports editor of my acquaintance first began to mutter when there was hardly a name worth a headline.

It was a nice touch, a sort of public cuddle, when the England manager, Terry Venables, showed up at a press conference before the match against the US last week with Paul Gascoigne. Well, one thing leads to another and in their understandable eagerness to update Gascoigne's progress, reporters made an important statement about English football. It is that there are very few players who command undivided attention.

In reluctantly agreeing the other day that this is so, a young friend went on to ponder what he imagines sport was like before it became fashionable to appoint gurus. For example, did famous golfers simply step up and hit the ball without subconscious reference to complicated instruction and did this make them more entertaining?

When this was mentioned to a coach of some distinction he was not greatly moved. He said: 'You are thinking about a time before sport was big business. Show me a personality and the odds are that I can show you a problem.'

It is that sort of remark which encourages me to join in the applause for Agassi. In view of the misguided philosophy that appears to prevail in his game, he is the sort of problem we can do with.

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