If you want to avoid the topic of football in 2006 then, as the broadcasters say, look away now, because it promises to be a headline-grabbing year for the game: three English Premiership clubs - Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool - and one Scottish Premier League club, Rangers, are into the last 16 of the Champions' League, which resumes in late February.
By the end of March, we are told, the brand-new Wembley Stadium will be ready for significant action, and it will host the 2006 FA Cup final on Saturday 13 May. Then, on 9 June, the 2006 World Cup in Germany will begin, with England already rated behind Brazil as second favourites to win the tournament.
For once, the domestic pundits have a rosy view of England's chances. The team have been allocated a relatively easy qualifying group, alongside Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago and Sweden, so they should go through to the next stage either as group winners or runners-up. They will respect, but not fear, their likely opponents Germany and Argentina, both of whom they have beaten in recent years.
It is also being said that England now has a "golden generation" of players, headed by the likes of Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, John Terry, Michael Owen, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard, who will give the country its best chance of winning the World Cup since Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy into a clear blue sky at Wembley in July 1966.
Given a few breaks, it is not impossible that an English club will win the Champions' League again after Liverpool's dramatic triumph against AC Milan last year, nor that an England team will put "40 years of hurt" behind it and win the world crown. After the success in the rugby World Cup two years ago and the Ashes victory this past summer, the fans would justifiably be able to sing "Rule Britannia" from their seats in Berlin's Olympiastadion on 9 July.
There is, however, an alternative view, which goes something like this. None of the English teams will be able to get past a Ronaldinho-inspired Barcelona in the Champions' League at whatever stage they might meet the Catalan giants. Then, in the run-up to the World Cup, England will lose one or two key players to injury, as happened in 2002 when Gerrard missed out and David Beckham limped through the tournament.
This misfortune will be followed by a crucial misjudgement of the use of substitutes by England's Swedish coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, and our chance will be gone again for another four years. Oh, and the new Wembley Stadium won't have been ready on time for the FA Cup final, leaving the Football Association having to borrow Cardiff's Millennium Stadium one more time.
Within this gloomy scenario, there is also turmoil at club level as Manchester United's form disintegrates further, ending the reign of master manager Sir Alex Ferguson and forcing the club's owners, the Glazer family, into a "fire sale" of Old Trafford's playing assets to pay off their debts. Meanwhile, Chelsea's Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, becomes impatient with Chelsea and takes his millions elsewhere.
OK, neither scenario is likely to unfold as completely as is outlined here, but elements of both will come into play: such is the precarious nature of English football. At once rich with playing talent and mercantile investment at the highest level, the game needs only a short sequence of setbacks to deflate it as comprehensively as any bubble in the first years of the dotcom boom. For, as currently configured, it must feed constantly on success because there is no other diet on which it can sustain itself.
The multimillion-pound annual wages of the players and the percentages of the omnipresent agents require English football clubs to look beyond their fan bases for cash. They must court huge corporate investment and sponsorship, and even individual ownership, by business magnates to meet their costs, the stock-market "solution" of the 1980s having foundered so pitifully.
Chelsea got lucky with their Russian patron, but the Glazer takeover of Manchester United seems to have resulted in a depletion of resources and a lack of investment in the right players the club needs to maintain its elevated status. United's main sponsor, Vodafone, will not be renewing its contract next season, while Carlsberg was on the verge of dumping Liverpool prior to the club's miraculous night in Istanbul last May.
Even so, the Liverpool board has been touting the club around South-east Asia and America in the search for a sugar-daddy as it seeks funds to build a new stadium a short distance away from the club's historic Anfield home. It rejected the offer from Thailand's Prime Minister but has recently been linked with the Kraft family, of Massachusetts, who own the successful American football franchise the New England Patriots.
No leading English club seems willing to embrace the business plan of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, all of which are predominantly funded by annual subscriptions from their fans, who thereby become voting members and are enabled to elect a board and a president whose decision-making is constantly under democratic scrutiny. No English football chairman, past or present, would contemplate control being taken out of his hands in this way.
Yet for the English Premiership to survive, a new business model may be needed soon. Chelsea's annexation by Abramovich, while it remains benign, has moved the goalposts far from their traditional location. Chelsea have invested more than £200m just in buying players, and millions more are required to service their wages. Ticket prices have risen astronomically at Stamford Bridge, where even the cheap seats are in the range of £50 to £70.
For now, the fans are happy to pay - a first Championship in 50 years was won last year, together with the Carling Cup, and Chelsea lead the Premiership again, having dropped only five points so far this season. But the Premiership and the Champions' League are required trophies for the enterprise, and Abramovich's interest, to be sustained.
This leaves Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool gasping breathlessly in pursuit of the west London club, which has a squad of 23 to 25 full internationals and an almost furtive policy of buying up for the future almost any promising teenager in the lower English leagues. The rest of the Premiership teams are playing for places in Europe or safety from relegation.
Yet failure in the Champions' League could see our best Premiership players - Thierry Henry, Frank Lampard, John Terry - sold on to Spain's two dominant clubs. And if the great World Cup venture ends in tears, the foreign coach experiment will be promptly terminated as the fans seek a retrenchment in traditional values both on and off the field, with a stout English type managing the national team and a sullen rejection of the foreign imports they see as having been obstacles to the development of the domestic game. The past decade of "multiculturalism" in English football could be reversed.
For the time being, though, the current structure of the English game at the top level seems safe enough. Eriksson continues to defy his doubters by getting winning performances from his players, who are in turn given a richer education by such visionary club coaches as the Portuguese Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, the Frenchman Arsene Wenger at Arsenal and the Spaniard Rafael Benitez at Liverpool.
Indeed, if Sir Alex Ferguson is forced out in the next few months, it is more likely that the Manchester club will go for a foreign coach - perhaps the Italian Fabio Capello or the German Ottmar Hitzfeld - with great tactical acumen and a knowledge of overseas playing markets than an English "fightball" stalwart such as Sam Allardyce of Bolton or another Protestant work ethic evangelist in the Ferguson mould such as Celtic's former manager Martin O'Neill.
So there is more than just a football result riding on the World Cup. But then this tournament always has been about more than football. Benito Mussolini effectively fixed the result of the 1934 tournament when he dined with the match referee the night before Italy played Austria in the semi-final. The same ref took charge of the final, in which Italy beat Czechoslovakia.
There was similarly dark aspect to the 1978 finals, which were played out under the sunglasses of Argentina's military junta. Argentina were allowed to play one game knowing exactly the score they needed in order to proceed - and they duly thumped six goals past a curiously inept Peruvian goalie. The Mexican authorities brutally suppressed student protests the year before the 1970 tournament. And the best teams do not always win - witness Hungary in 1954, Holland in 1974 and Brazil in 1982. Many Germans, meanwhile, still insist that England's third goal in the 1966 final did not cross the line.
This time around, the political undercurrents will surely swirl around the presence of Iran and its current appetite for nuclear expansion, and Serbia-Montenegro for the continued freedom of the indicted war criminals Radovan Karadic and Ratko Mladic. Angola and Ivory Coast are recent civil war survivors, while the host nation, Germany, will be hoping that a successful tournament will jump-start its stalled economy. Another French victory, after 1998, with a team largely derived from descendants of its former African and Caribbean colonies, would be a defiant gesture to "France for the French" politicians.
Fifa, football's governing body, is determined to eliminate anything intruding from the "real" world. Commendable, you may think, as this an international sporting contest between disparate nations that mocks the need for war. Fifa can at least be given credit for its stance against racism, which on recent evidence is most likely to rear its head among Italian, Serbian and Spanish supporters. The English FA has more or less won that battle and, to a lesser extent, the struggle to eradicate thugs from within the travelling fans. But mingling so many nations inevitably raises political tensions.
So what - dare we dream it? - if England win? Apart from a surge of national euphoria that will enhance our bid to host the 2018 tournament, we can expect more overseas players clamouring to join a Premiership that they admire for its passion, pace and money, if not for its intellectual content. The overseas profiles of the top English clubs, especially in the Far East and perhaps even in America, will be heightened, with renewed vigour added to the club merchandise markets.
The costly investment plans, for new stadia, overseas academies, and media expansion will become easier to implement, and the possibilities of single ownership of clubs will undoubtedly increase. The imminent auction of television broadcast rights as "bundles" rather than a monopoly should create a fruitful bidding war. And players will grow ever richer.
Bizarrely, none of this happened after 1966. The England players received a bonus of a few hundred quid, a few free suits and shirts and a celebratory banquet at a Kensington hotel, from which wives and friends were excluded. Several players drifted off to London pubs in order to experience the true flavour of their victory but they were never amply rewarded for their heroism. The selling of World Cup-winning medals to finance later life would become a potent symbol of the lack of "profit-sharing" by English football's authorities.
Nor was there an immediate boom in gates or revenue. The concept of pitch-side advertising was yet to come, as were the first deals in the 1970s for - shock horror! - shirt sponsors. And as far as I can remember, Kevin Keegan was the first player to get an agent, in around 1973. Even the late, lamented George Best managed only a couple of boutiques and the opening of car showrooms as extra income.
The stifling control that the Football Association then had over the game enhanced the masters-and-servants structure of football's industrial relations. There was no freedom of contract for players, little union representation and not much commercial nous.
Now, in complete contrast, the FA, the Premiership, and the Football League are fully business-orientated. The PFA, the Professional Footballers' Association, has a powerful voice, and its chief executive, Gordon Taylor, once a humble winger for Bolton Wanderers, earns a salary of more than £500,000 a year.
Victory in the World Cup would surely exacerbate the gap between the Premiership moguls at the pyramid's apex and the clubs at its base. There is very little "trickledown", and most of the transfer money would probably be spent on players from Europe, Africa and South America rather than Rotherham United or Mansfield Town.
Even those clubs in the bottom half of the Premiership are cut adrift from the six or seven top-earning clubs. Mid-table Aston Villa, for example, will rely solely on loan deals for players when the next transfer window opens this month, while Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal will spend yet again to strengthen their squads for the second half of the season.
Indeed, the élite clubs may well go further and push for a restructuring of the Premiership itself, dumping the "yo-yo" clubs' such as Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion, which alternate relegation with promotion from the Championship, in favour of Celtic and Rangers. If this enrichment of the Premiership happens, it should at least be made to apply itself to such issues as the lack of Anglo-Asian players and fans in the game, and to the continued lack of supporter representation at club level.
Ironically, these two strands may equally come into play if England's World Cup adventure becomes a fiasco. Many lower- league clubs have become owned by "supporter trusts" after gross mismanagement by supposed business experts. And any club with basic commercial intelligence would seek to expand its customer base into all corners of the community that surrounds it rather than stick to outdated perceptions of ethnic divides.
We should, however, give credit to English football for emerging from the deep pits of stadium tragedies, hooliganism, razor-wire fences, riots and racism to become a force for social good. A thousand or more Anglo-Caribbean players have found a role in professional football, breaking down the barriers of stereotype and hostility to emerge as local or national heroes. Yes, there should, by ratio, be more black managers, but that could be said of most British industries.
The clubs have also done much to make their stadiums safer, friendlier places for women and children. And whatever some critics say about the influx of foreign players, it has allowed fans to see skills that were too often denied a place in the English game and, perhaps more importantly, to confront and dismantle their inclination to xenophobia. Would Arsenal fans who have rejoiced in the sumptuous creations of Thierry Henry now boo the French national anthem or cross the boulevard to avoid a black Parisian? Would a closet racist within Chelsea's support now dare to heckle Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast with monkey chants?
There will not be just 23 England players representing us at the World Cup: more than twice that number from both the Premiership and Football League will be lining up for Spain, France, Poland, Ghana, Japan, Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil, Holland and many more. They are all one with us. See? We've won already.
16-29 Tennis Australian Open; 20-22 Rallying Monte Carlo Rally.
4 Rugby Six Nations, England v Wales, Ireland v Italy; 5 Rugby Scotland v France; 10-26 Winter Olympics Turin; 11 Rugby France v Ireland, Italy v England; 12 Rugby Wales v Scotland; 25 Rugby France v Italy, Scotland v England; 26 Rugby Ireland v Wales.
10-12 Athletics World Indoor Championships, Moscow; 11 Rugby Ireland v Scotland, Italy v Wales;
12 Rugby France v England; 14-17 Racing Cheltenham; 18 Rugby England v Ireland, Italy v Scotland, Wales v France.
6-9 Golf US Masters; 8 Racing John Smith's Grand National, Aintree; 15 to 1 May Snooker World Championship, Sheffield; 23 Athletics Flora London Marathon.
1 Racing 2000 Guineas, Newmarket; 6 Football FA Premier League final; 10 Football UEFA Cup final; 13 Football FA Cup final; 17 Football Champions League final; 28-11 June Tennis French Open.
3 Racing Derby, Epsom; 9 Football World Cup starts; 11 Formula One British Grand Prix, Silverstone; 15-18 Golf US Open; 26-9 July Tennis Wimbledon.
1-23 Cycling Tour de France; 9 Football World Cup final; 20-23 Golf British Open; 29 Racing Diamond Day, Ascot.
8-13 Athletics European Championships, Gothenburg; 28-10 September Tennis US Open.
9-10 Athletics World Athletics final, Stuttgart; 22-24 Golf Ryder Cup, Kildare, Ireland.
1 Formula One Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai; 8 Formula One Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka.
11 Racing Paddy Power Gold Cup, Cheltenham; 23-27 Cricket Australia v England first Ashes Test, Brisbane.
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