Football: United workers' revolutionary party

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The Independent Online
BY NOMINATING Destiny as the Man of the Match in Barcelona on Wednesday night I fear we are doing Manchester United and football in general a dangerous disservice. We've been fretting so long about the increasing number of important matches that lumber tediously towards an unsatisfactory conclusion it is understandable that the awesome finale created by United should be granted supernatural status.

But if "das boot" had been on the other foot we would have been indulging in one of those distressingly familiar exercises in self- criticism that defines our inferiority complex. Despite a performance well short of their best, United deserve the full honour of an incredible triumph and even to romanticise about divine intervention tends to dilute the value of a factor vital to their arrival in the great side category.

If you insist on locating some spiritual message in the events of the Nou Camp let it be that God helps those who help themselves. This is only one of the lessons capable of adding a greater significance to United's achievement than the clouds of euphoria created by the extraordinary transformation they wrought within those fateful 90 seconds of a fast-fading European Champions' League final.

Few would argue with the assessment that it was the most amazing finish ever seen in a major sporting event. Its force was registered in the eruption of joy among the players, in the red ranks in the steep stands and in millions of delighted homes, but nowhere with more telling impact than among the thunderstruck players of Bayern Munich.

Any losing team in a game of this magnitude is going to be demoralised but I don't recall ever seeing a body of footballers so utterly devastated. I suspect that it was not just the result that so pummelled their senses but experiencing at first hand the mesmerising inevitability with which it was executed.

United's ability to greet the final minutes of a match with a rejuvenated optimism that their opponents can detect developing around them will become all the more potent now that it has been proved at the highest level. Most losing teams manage to mount last- minute rallies but they are usually born of despair and conducted in a blind frenzy. This lot seem to possess a chilling vision of what can still be achieved and, despite what has gone before, a whole range of talents able to achieve it.

That sort of inner strength, proved in a series of severe tests, is capable of subjecting opponents to a paralysing dread of the final minutes if the game hasn't been settled beyond all doubt by then. It is a dread compounded by the fact that Alex Ferguson would have replenished his attack from the world's best-stocked substitutes' bench with players bewilderingly different from those the defenders had been coping with previously.

This offers much more than a new edge to the appetite for next season; it could revolutionise attitudes that have dulled so many big games. For years, football has been struggling to adjust to games in which goals are so difficult to come by that stalemates are unavoidable. Solutions put forward in all seriousness range from widening the goals to reducing the number of players per team.

Arguments about how to squeeze a fair result out of a tight game have occupied every brain in football and the monstrous penalty shoot-out is the best we've come up with. Far from solving the problem, the prospect of more success with penalties than in general run of play drives out all ambition. You almost see teams settling for extra time with five or 10 minutes to go, each passing minute taking a hunk of their resolve with it.

One of the most impressive aspects of United's late flurry was that they didn't settle for extra-time once they had equalised. Most other teams who had endured the prospect of losing for so long would have instinctively shut up shop immediately.

That's the sort of sterile thinking that may now be on the way out when teams spend time studying the clear implications of what United achieved in the dying moments of a match that would have otherwise found a place in the long list of uninspiring European finals. Bayern should be among the most earnest students. They might easily have increased their lead in the last 15 minutes and the near misses may have encouraged them to think they had added to the worthiness of a victory of which they already felt assured. They won't make that mistake again.

As Wellington would have said, it was a damn close run thing. Had the score stayed at 1-0, it would have been a bitter anti-climax and the British Press, who I thought performed admirably, were already scribbling criticisms of Ferguson's tactics when the two goals had them hastily revising their opinions in an upwards direction. They recognised that what happened could not be credited to luck or any influence other than the quality his squad alone possesses.

What won the night in Barcelona was fit to create a revolution in the way players are trained to think about and approach the game of football.

TOP TENNIS women have been demanding pay parity with the men at Wimbledon and, suddenly, it is beginning to look as if they're worth it. Apart from the abiding interest in Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski there isn't much about the men's section that has yet drummed up a yearning for the Centre Court action to start.

But the girls have been beefing up Wimbledon's box-office appeal with a sequence of confrontations that are already working on the appetite. On the one hand we have the muscular, well-developed ladies and, on the other, the more conventionally shaped. Martina Hingis brought the simmering to the boil when she described France's power-packed Amelie Mauresmo as "half a man" and added defeat to insult when she beat her rugged opponent in the French Open on Wednesday.

Mary Pierce has been extolling the virtues of a food supplement that has helped to pump up her physique. Golden girl Anna Kournikova has slammed the trend, saying that it's about brains not brawn.

It is the hulks versus the honeys, amazons against Miss Muffets, creatine against crinolene... How the men can compete against it I don't care to go into.

COMPLAINTS HAVE been aimed at ITV for their coverage of Manchester United's victory. Cutting away to an advert was not felt to be in keeping with a moment of a great triumph. I was too busy pouring another drink to notice but I am aware of a few shortcomings in the coverage of the cricket World Cup on BBC and Sky. It is the nature of the tournament that viewers will be switching on at odd times during the day and the more casual and uncommitted onlookers are not receiving the best of help.

Unless you are on blinking terms with each team's garish colours, it takes a while to work out who is playing. The little box in the top left- hand corner of the screen offers a blurred vision of the score and the over count. But information about which batsmen are in, how long they've been there and how many runs they've got is scarce and one spends a lot of time trying read names on the back of shirts.

A quick flash of the scorecard at regular intervals would help. Actors used to be trained to speak loud enough for the old man in the back-row to hear. Cricket TV directors should try to remember the poor old sod who has just switched on.

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