Football: Where is the evidence to suggest that England's flagship tournament is unmatched for quality?

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The Independent Online
A traditional cop out for sports columnists at this time of the year is to look back on the events of recent history. There are various ways of addressing an absolutely dependable chore but none of them appeal to me personally.

Presuming to be still of sound mind, I flinch from attempting to appear witty or wise on the perch provided by this newspaper.

You see, the trouble for people of my age is that something happens to the eyesight, as you get older, which opticians may know about but never mention. We may see clearly enough but the images become subject to preference and upbringing.

Opinion fosters a generational conflict but all sports watchers should consider the possibility that they are seeing what they want to see rather than what is actually happening.

The year we have stepped from provided plenty of opportunities, accepted gleefully by newspapers and broadcasting networks, for leaping in with subjective judgements that proved, and could prove, embarrassing in retrospect.

A claim advanced for the Premier League last year is a good example of what I am going on about. My eyes may be up to their tricks again but where is the evidence to suggest that England's flagship tournament is unmatched for quality? Despite the incessant trumpeting of its paymasters, Sky television, what are we really looking at? Excitement certainly and gifted individuals who set the pulse racing. But for most teams beneath Manchester United the object is to secure status through effort and determination. English football's pseudo-intellectuals are unlikely to agree but the levelling off is downwards not upwards.

Hartmut Scherzer is a German sportswriter. A friend, I encounter him regularly at the big fights, World Cups, Olympic Games, international sweat festivals of every kind. Last Monday he came over with two colleagues to watch Jurgen Klinsmann reappear in the colours of Tottenham Hotspur against Arsenal. To their minds it was a pretty awful match in which only Dennis Bergkamp, David Ginola and Klinsmann looked like proper footballers.

As a Christmas treat, one of Scherzer's colleagues brought along his 12-year-old son. Afterwards, turning to his father, the boy asked, "Why don't they play football in England?'' It's a question Alan Sugar and his cohorts might like to think about.

Watching Tiger Woods lay waste to Augusta National in last year's Masters, even people who should have known better leaped immediately to the conclusion that he was sure to surpass Jack Nicklaus's record of 19 major championships to become the greatest golfer in history. So much money poured in on the possibility of Woods winning the Grand Slam that the odds became ridiculous. Did Woods win the Masters because he struck peak form on a course set up perfectly for his unquestionable talent? We shall see but his subsequent failures in the US Open, The Open, the US PGA championship and the Ryder Cup left plenty of people dangling in the trap of instant conclusion.

Perhaps it was my eyes playing up again but I could have sworn that Brazil were seldom flat out when inflicting England's only defeat in the Tournoi de France last summer. Maybe England, in a World Cup year, will be up to the standard Glenn Hoddle and many of his compatriots imagine but experience suggests caution at the betting windows.

Keen observation was important to the assessment of Naseem Hamed, who became convinced last year that no featherweight in history could have lived with him. Head up, hands down in defiance of tenets that most boxing trainers hold sacrosant, Hamed was inviting a smack on the chin. Kevin Kelley obliged. Three times before succumbing to Hamed's natural speed and power.

Following victory in the first Test last summer, the England and Wales Cricket Board chairman, Lord MacLaurin, put it about that Mike Atherton's team could well be the best performing presently. This was entrapment of the highest order and three defeats later, a boost for the optical industry.

Many innocent years ago, I was advised that eyes can deceive even the best judges of horseflesh. Possessing no expertise in such matters, I bore the instruction in mind when choosing to ignore Entrepreneur's brilliant victory in the 2,000 guineas as a pointer to the Derby. My money was on Silver Patriarch, who finished second to Benny the Dip. There endeth the lesson.

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