Brian Viner: Absence really can make a fan's heart grow fonder

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The Independent Football

On the pavement outside The Rocket, a pub near Euston Station, a message on a blackboard invites punters to "watch Euro 2008 here – at least England can't lose!" There's no arguing with that, indeed from where I'm sitting, in seat 1, row A, of my living-room, there's a great deal to be said for a tournament in which, whatever happens, not a single Englishman will direct a penalty with deadly precision into the goalkeeper's arms, or against the crossbar, or into the phalanx of photographers behind the goal, before sinking in agonised disbelief to his knees while 11 foreigners run around leaping on one another.

On Boxing Day 1978, while staying at my grandmother's house in north London, I took myself off to Highbury to watch Arsenal play West Bromwich Albion. That might seem like a non sequitur but bear with me. It was shortly after my 17th birthday and the first time I had been to a football match in which I had no partisan interest. I loved it. I was already a committed Everton fan, a season-ticket holder at Goodison Park, but in a way I came of age as a football fan that Boxing Day afternoon. Whether Lawrie Cunningham was jinking into the Arsenal area, or Liam Brady threading a killer pass into the West Bromwich area, mattered not. I just enjoyed the spectacle while all around me people were chewing their fingernails. It was thrillingly liberating.

So that's one reason to look forward to Euro 2008 – as the proprietors of The Rocket presciently point out, England can't lose. Another is that international football is now the purest form of the game, featuring teams shaped by the accident of birth, not the design of billionaires. Which, of course, is precisely why England aren't there. On Thursday the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, suggested that England's success in club football – three teams in the last four of the Champions League, and two in the final – was inextricably connected with our dismal recent record on the international stage. And it's a double-edged sword. Foreign players abound and thrive in the Premier League, then go home and help their countries qualify for tournaments at England's expense, while promising young English players fester in the reserves, not getting the opportunities that will prepare them for international football.

Blatter is right, though I hate to admit it. I was introduced to him once, in the boardroom at Parkhead, and marvelled at how a man could be quite so physically puffed up with his own importance. A gratifying number of people in sport have onomatopoeic names. The gymnast Beth Tweddle is one – indeed she is perfecting an exciting new move on the asymmetric bars, as yet unseen in major competition, that she hopes will become known as "the Tweddle" – and Blatter is another. The verb "to blatter" fully deserves a place in the sporting lexicon, meaning to pontificate about football with a thrust of the chest. But in his desire to limit the number of overseas players, likely as his "6+5" scheme is to be thwarted by restraint-of-trade regulations, he deserves the support of everyone who really cares about English football.

Still, with or without England, a week which sees the start of a tournament beyond the influence of anyone's chequebook, the sub-plot of Cristiano Ronaldo's possible £70m, £150,000-a-week move to Real Madrid notwithstanding, seems to me to be a good week for football. And it is compounded by two unrelated developments that threaten to undermine the widespread notion that the Beautiful Game has become hideously scarred by greed and venality. It was marvellous to hear that Aston Villa's shirts next season will bear the name of a charity, Acorns Children's Hospices, the club having spurned a multi-million pound sponsorship deal. And similarly uplifting was the news that the Everton manager, David Moyes, having received substantial damages in the High Court as a result of being libelled in Wayne Rooney's autobiography, intends to donate the entire sum to the Everton Former Players' Foundation. Moyes could have issued a statement saying that he planned to give "a substantial proportion" to a charity of his choice, as plenty of other well-remunerated football men would have done in the same circumstances. But by handing over the lot, and redirecting it towards those who played when the only footballer with a Baby Bentley was the Chelsea captain Roy, he sent out a timely message: the words "football" and "decent moral values" can still rub shoulders.

Moreover, Moyes was graciousness itself towards his former charge Rooney, wishing him all the best in the future. I like to think that this sentiment might have brought a small blush to young Wayne's cheek, as he whoops it up on his stag do in Ibiza or wherever he is this week. We know, alas (and despite all my best efforts I can no longer sustain the pretence that I'm content not to see the England football team in Austria and Switzerland), where he is not.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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