Feeling and sensibility of players an example to all

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Those of us regularly dismayed by what we perceive as the catchpenny mentality of the modern professional footballer should perhaps have been on the sunbathed slopes of the Acropolis this week.

There, a chorus of mobile phones announced that sportswriters covering Manchester United's Champions' League tie with Olympiakos could stand down, at least once they had covered the predictable outrage of the Old Trafford management and players that Uefa had cancelled the game out of respect for the uncounted dead of New York and Washington.

But there was no anger, no clichés about the value of sport when set against the treacheries and cruelties of the real world. Ryan Giggs welcomed the decision, said that playing football at such a time would have been a bizarre experience. It was a view confirmed by the players of Dutch club PSV Eindhoven, who had played the previous night, quite atrociously as it happened, and reported that it had been a surreal occasion when the demands of football tactics had been overwhelmed by the need to absorb the mind-altering images from America.

Maybe most telling of all was the reaction of Laurent Blanc, France's World and European champion, when he was asked about the level of his disappointment that he would not, at the age of 35, be making his debut in Europe's greatest club competition. The circumstances of his situation were indeed extraordinary. He had been at Auxerre and Marseilles and Barcelona at the wrong time and he did not count a qualifying tie for Internazionale.

Yes, he had been stopped one step away from gaining entry to every significant theatre of football action. But disappointed? "How can you be disappointed?" he asked. "We are talking about football, a game, a great game, maybe, but still a game. It would have been impossible to play football tonight." Sir Alex Ferguson has been candid about his motivation for signing Blanc. At 35, the French Legionnaire of Honour has no doubt seen the dwindling of some of his warrior power. But his football brain is still a miracle of calm and precision, as he proved in his effortless subjection of one of the Premiership's most physically challenging strikers, Everton's Duncan Ferguson, at Old Trafford last Saturday. Ferguson spoke of Blanc's value as an educator, especially for the development of the hugely promising Wes Brown, and in Athens this week we could also see the benefits the French hero can bring not so much as an athlete as a man.

Certainly the tone of Blanc's response to the "disappointment" of inaction spoke of a perspective which flew beyond the boundaries of the field, and that of his younger colleagues also was something of a contradiction to the common picture of pampered, under-performing ingrates. The comments of Giggs and Blanc said that the modern player could indeed see further than the nearest touchline, and that if sometimes he was unmindful of all his advantages of life, if sometimes he behaved like an ass, it was only in proportion to the rest of society.

Jimmy Armfield, formerly of Blackpool and England, certainly was not as surprised as the football writers in Athens when United to a man said that the mayhem in Manhattan provided food for thought which inevitably dwarfed any potential feast of football at the Olympic Stadium. Inconvenience, after all, was in this week of all weeks strictly a matter of degree. "No," said Armfield, who plays the organ at his local parish church, "I wasn't surprised at all. Footballers don't change. Only the pound signs. There are bad lads in football like anywhere else, but today they operate under a microscope that just didn't exist in my time. It is, anyway, a time of exaggeration and hype, and I can tell you that for every lad who invites the bad headlines, who behaves irresponsibly, there are scores who know how lucky they are to be so well paid for playing the game they would do for free.

"A lot of footballers are aggressive because they are playing a professional game and they know the need for good results, but when you take them out of that need for aggression, they are mostly normal young men who care about their families, who have the same hopes and worries as anyone else." Certainly it is interesting that the players of Manchester United, among the most lauded and lavishly rewarded in the world of football, should display a finer feeling, a depth of sensitivity, which so uniformly called into question the relevance of their work last Wednesday night, that rather stunned the journalists there to cover them. It was at the very least something of a tilt at the more easily drawn stereotypes.

Armfield reports how instantly he identified with the mood of Blanc and Giggs in Athens. "Like everyone else who was alive at the time, I recall precisely where I was when I heard that President Kennedy had been shot. I was with the rest of the Blackpool players in the Dominion cinema in Tottenham Court Road. Half-way through the film the cinema manager came on to the stage and announced that the president had been shot. I can't remember if we saw the end of the film. I can't even remember who we played the following day. But I do recall that it didn't seem to matter that much."

It is reasonable to speculate that Blanc and Giggs will have regained some of their appetite for football action when they step out at St James' Park this afternoon. They will have been warned about the transforming effect of Bobby Robson's apparently inspired gamble on the French winger Laurent Robert. They will know the importance of retaining the urgency and the imagination which went into last weekend's brilliant victory over Everton. They will go about their work as professionals, in good conscience and a clearer state of mind.

They did not, after all, say that football was not important when they stood down so willingly in Athens. They simply said that, like all things on this side of life and death, it has its place and its time. But they said it swiftly enough to make a lot of people think, and not least those moral arbiters up on the hill.