James Lawton: England's sporting 'ambassadors' are put to shame by Europe's finest footballers

The Italians left smartly dressed and conscious that they represented their country
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The Independent Football

Though the usual post-game desire to dance over the cobbles of St Stephen's Square in Vienna was less overwhelming today after the reminder from Italy and Spain of what we were not missing, Euro 2008 continues to enjoy vast and surely legitimate credit, both on and off the field. In the latter category, though there is a certain poignancy if you happen to be English and thus inevitably feel more than a little as if you have been beamed down to another planet where the trains work and are punctual and people from all kinds of cultures and backgrounds seem to be making valiant attempts to be nice to each other.

What is so wrenching from this perspective is the news that while national teams like Turkey, Russia, Spain and Germany continue to sweat blood on behalf of their people, and perhaps even their own pride, another group of professional sportsmen purporting to represent England have behaved like a bunch of witless adolescents.

In the parlous case of England's rugby team it is hard to know where to place most blame, whether on the highly paid leader of the party, the head of "elite" rugby, Rob Andrew, or those of the players who insisted on their Saturday night out in Christchurch despite the fact that, rightly or wrongly, the touring party of which they were members had acquired a reputation among the locals that could hardly have been more alarming if they had dressed up in full Viking kit.

Andrew was contemptuous of the suggestion that he might feel mortified enough by this latest public relations disaster for English rugby to consider for a moment handing in his resignation. What, after all, did we expect him to do: lock them in their rooms? It might have been a start, Rob, it might have hinted that travelling across the world representing your country perhaps carried a few responsibilities.

The comparison between English professional team sport and that which is being represented here in the tournament that has warmed so many jaded spirits, has become extreme to the point of the ridiculous. It may have something to do with that little old gimmick called leadership.

Consider for a moment the anarchy that has prevailed in all our three major national teams in the last few years. The current rugby disaster would take some beating, of course, but it does not go unchallenged. Remember what happened when Rio Ferdinand was dropped from the England squad while he faced a hearing on his failure to take a drugs test? England were at the climactic phase of qualifying for the last European Championship, vital business for the gaiety of the nation but not important enough for the threat of a players' strike to die on the lips of its author. If the coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, had put more effort into staying on the fence he might have developed a hernia. As it was, he was summoned, in mid-dinner, by his captain, David Beckham, to attend a team meeting. He put down his knife and fork and trotted along.

It is maybe too wearisome to trawl deeply into how Andrew Flintoff, a hero of the Ashes victory of 2005, was allowed to make a travesty of the England captaincy Down Under – and then managed to find himself awash on a pedalo in the small hours of the morning during last year's World Cup.

No, there is scarcely any point in labouring the issue beyond saying that in more than two weeks of intense competition here in Austria and in Switzerland, the professional footballers of 16 nations, many of whom are so rich they could retire to some enchanted little island overnight, have managed to go about their high-profile business without either troubling the constabulary or upsetting the locals.

When the Italians said their sad farewells in Vienna yesterday they did so according to the usual demands of team discipline, smartly dressed and conscious that in all public places they were representing their country. The Italians liked Paul Gascoigne when he arrived in their midst with Lazio, but they were bemused when they understood that his decision to burp into a microphone was considered a matter for amusement rather than embarrassment back home. They were incredulous because of the culture of the professional footballer in Italy; it is to achieve a status of respect, even envy, and the demands that come along with it – a point which England's new manager, Fabio Capello, was compelled to make after his first collision with the mores of an England squad which had tackled so pathetically the challenge of qualifying for the current Championship.

There were suggestions, not entirely beyond belief, that some England players, notably the prospective captain Rio Ferdinand – who was generally believed to be the leading light in the organising of a Manchester United Christmas party that both enraged Sir Alex Ferguson and at one point threatened to re-enact the fall of the Roman Empire – reacted well to Capello's new orders. This conjured the image of naughty children yearning for the discipline that hints that someone cares.

There is no need for such a psychological lunge in the matter of Guus Hiddink's approach. The coach of the brilliantly emerging Russians started off his first training session by telling the player who arrived late and blaming the Moscow traffic, to pack his bags and go away and think about whether he really wanted to play for his country.

Earlier in his career, when he was coach of the Netherlands, Hiddink sent home the influential Edgar Davids in the middle of Euro 96 in England. It was too late to revive a hopelessly divided Dutch team – they were beaten 4-1 by an England who had escaped largely unpunished from a widely publicised night of unbridled boozing in Hong Kong – but it was a different story in France two years later when Hiddink's men went to a World Cup semi-final against Brazil. It was one they might have won if the hitherto brilliant Dennis Bergkamp hadn't chosen it as one of those days when he was hell-bent to impersonate the Scarlet Pimpernel.

Some things don't change, however, and it is not the least of the appeal of events here that we are being reminded of this so entertainingly.

One of them is that if they don't happen to have been born somewhere south of the Alps and north of the toe of Sicily most gifted footballers enjoy being taken off the leash when they go out on to the field. On the other hand, it is something they accept when they come off it. Imposing such a culture, in an age when it appears possible that a Cristiano Ronaldo can stamp his feet and pout sufficiently to get more or less anything he wants, is doubtless harder than ever before.

Here though, it seems that it can be done, at least for a few charmed weeks. This is immense good luck for Euro 2008 and, who knows, it might just provide a timely example for the most powerful sections of English sport. However, you might just say it is also entirely possible a lederhosen-clad pig will fly over St Stephen's Square.

Is it just me, or have we seen Spain's wily old coach somewhere before?

Many claim they were the first to imagine that Gene "The French Connection" Hackman had abandoned Hollywood in favour of coaching Brazil and then Portugal. Rightly though, they are told that it was an absolute no-brainer. Hackman and Big Phil plainly might have been twins.

Somewhat trickier, but not impossible I submit, is identifying the double of Spain's cantankerous but currently highly successful old coach Luis Aragones. The football man who has emerged from the deepest of controversy has a face that at times perfectly reflects the agonies and frustrations of life, and never did it paint a more expressive picture than when his hugely talented forward David Villa performed a dive that would have been laughed away on Hackney Marshes, never mind amid the cynical sophisticates of Italian defence.

In that world-weary moment of commentary on the absurdity of life, Aragones' double revealed himself to be the superb Scottish comedian Stanley Baxter.

This may be a surprise to both Aragones and Baxter but no doubt a delight to Scotland. With due respects to Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Matt Busby and Jock Stein, who all briefly held the job, not many of their compatriots have been mistaken for winning national team managers. Indeed Ally MacLeod, who had announced to a Hampden Park pre-World Cup rally in 1978 that he was going to bring home the great trophy, sought to comfort a whimpering, stray Argentine dog at training.

At the time he was being interrogated by a Scottish press anxious to know why the campaign had floundered with a defeat by a Peru and a draw against Iran. There was also the problem of Willie Johnston being sent home after testing positive for drugs. It was reported, reliably we are told, that the dog snarled and then bit MacLeod's hand.