From Sydney glory to Wembley misery

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The Independent Football

Three of the fans who had earlier persuaded Kevin Keegan it was time for him to go brought on the big wave of poignancy. It was when they urinated on the tube heading back to Baker Street, and then speculated on what they might do with the horse excrement they had wrapped in an old newspaper.

Three of the fans who had earlier persuaded Kevin Keegan it was time for him to go brought on the big wave of poignancy. It was when they urinated on the tube heading back to Baker Street, and then speculated on what they might do with the horse excrement they had wrapped in an old newspaper.

That was when it really hit home that precisely a week earlier you had been sitting in the awesome Stadium Australia, ravished by Olympian spectacle and sipping a beautifully prepared cappuccino. Talk about different worlds, different dreams, different comforts.

The first instinct at Wembley had been to weep for English football, and the sad, rain-scouredcavern of lost glory the old expiring stadium had become.

Weep for the inadequacy of the judgement that had put the wholly unsuitable Kevin Keegan in charge of the national team. Weep for the lack of confidence and spark on the field. Weep for the memory of Moore and Charlton, Stiles and Hurst. But you couldn't stop the gloom widening, or check the inevitable comparison between what an Australian nation of 17 million had presented to the world and what a nation of more than 60 million produced for itself: a third-class performance of the national game watched in third world conditions.

When they lit a few fireworks at the end of one of the most dismal days in the nation's sporting life it was almost too pathetic to bear. The Aussies signed off with F-111's and a night filled with shooting stars. Wembley said goodbye with a sparkler and a story of gutlessbetrayal.

Tears were not so appropriate. What was needed was anger, rare, refined anger.

Even the most upbeat story of British sport since the World Cup victory of 1966, the renaissance of the nation's Olympic sportsmen and women in Sydney, was really, when you thought about it for a minute, another huge rebuke. It was Lottery money, that which could be siphoned off from the Dome, which helped give Britain 11 golds in place of the one brought home by the old Redgrave firm in 1996. That was the distinguishing mark of the two efforts.

A little reallocation of public money had brought such a dramatic improvement. Imagine where we might be, in every area of sport, if the needs of young sportsmen and women had been given the vigorous attention which is commonplace abroad. In the glory of Sydney, it was necessary to remember we still trailed France and Italy. It made you recall a visit to the rented quarters of the Ainslie family in Savannah four years ago, when the son Ben, a gold medallist in Sydney, was a 19-year-old yachting prodigy about to secure a silver medal. Ainslie's father, Roddy, a former round-the-world racer, explained that he could follow his son's progress only by snippets from American television. He couldn't afford the $100-a-day launch fee. The family had sold their house in Cornwall to support Ben's Olympic career.

In football the problem is made all the more intractable by a failure of both will and understanding of needs so great that it raises question marks against even the basic competence of those charged with making important decisions.

Three months ago it was plain that Keegan had given the job his best shot and had been found desperately wanting. But he was allowed to run out the string. Why? Because of a mixture of woolly thinking, sentiment and a failure of nerve.

Now we are fed a party line about the need for a new system and new continuity, but from where does it come? From a national game whose bankruptcy is announced every time a Premiership manager posts his foreign legionnaire team sheet or a big club pursues a top coach or the England team goes out on the field? The advice is to hold one's breath.

Plainly, we need help, and perhaps before we can properly reach out for it we have to take a careful look at ourselves. Terry Venables, who had one successful stint in the job, is rejected as successor to Keegan because he is not liked by the chairman of the Football Association's international committee, Noel White, who believes that Venables' chequered business life is somehow relevant to his chances of imposing deep experience and widely respected talent on the work of an England desperately in need of leadership. This impasse is generally described as a clash of personalities. It is more than that. It is a triumph for personal prejudice.

Sydney showed what can happen in a dynamic society which understands the importance of national pride, and which sees sport as one readily available and generally healthy outlet. Wembley on Saturday told us what happens when not enough people in the right places care enough. When the French decided they needed to revitalise their sporting image, they appointed as minister Guy Drut, who won Olympic gold over the hurdles in Montreal. When the British government decided the national game needed a keen, cold eye they appointed David Mellor as head of the "Task Force" and gave him a budget which wouldn't cover a booze-up at the local supporters' club.

So much seemed to come to a head on this last ineffably dreary Saturday afternoon: the sluggishness in replacing Wembley, the chaotic planning of the new national stadium, the fact that Premiership grounds no longer resemble Victorian slums mainly because of appalling tragedies at Hillsborough and Bradford, the whole downward drift of our old status as pioneers of the game the world plays.

It would have taken a switch blade to cut through the angst at Wembley.

Steve Redgrave, Denise Lewis and Audley Harrison took another hurrah, and it was still more sadness that they did it at half-time while Keegan's job was unravelling in the bowels of the creaking stadium. Harrison may not be the next Muhammad Ali, but he is a man of sharp intelligence and no-one has more bitingly addressed the malaise of British sport. Even as he was receiving his gold medal, he was forcefully making the point that Sydney was most of all a triumph for individual talent and ambition at last equipped with a modicum of financial support. But he was unbudging on a truth that reared up at Wembley quite irresistibly. The structure of the nation's sport remains scandalously derelict.

On Saturday you thought of the difference between attending rugby and football at the Stade de France and Twickenham and Wembley. You thought of the marshalling yard queues at the rail stations and the tube, and compared them to the swift passage from a Left Bank cafe to the great stade, which at its inception was sneered at in some quarters here as a hastily erected, carelessly planned creation on top of an old dumping ground for toxic waste.

And there it was, shaken down and gleaming for the start of the beautifully organised World Cup of 1998. The more you thought about it the more resonance came to the words of the boxer Harrison.

What happened last weekend was more than another blow for bedraggled English football, and its meaning went beyond the need for a coach, English or foreign, who could survive and prosper in the sophisticated battleground of the world game. It was a judgement on all those years of neglect. No, a tear of regret wasn't the ticket. Only a snarl of anger would do.