James Lawton: A shameful night for Spain, but a bleak one for England

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The Independent Online

It is inevitable and right that Spain, the nation that gave us the genius and humanity of Goya and Cervantes, is now dragged into the dock for the racism which so disfigured the game at the great Bernabeu stadium this week.

It is inevitable and right that Spain, the nation that gave us the genius and humanity of Goya and Cervantes, is now dragged into the dock for the racism which so disfigured the game at the great Bernabeu stadium this week.

It is right, too, that England, for so long the pariah of world football for its failure to control the scourge of hooliganism, leads the prosecution. Here, without a whisper of the doubt that assails so many other areas of administration and discipline, is one issue where the national game has led with conscience and grit and has demonstrably won.

Swingeing penalties for Spain, and a proper examination of the role of their philosophically stone-age coach Luis Aragones, is the proper demand after the submission of Ashley Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips to a gauntlet run of gutter abuse.

How bad was it at the Bernabeu? Well, how bad was it in the diner at Louisville when the then Cassius Clay, with Olympic gold in his pocket, was driven into the street because of the colour of his skin? How bad was it in Turin, a beautifully civilised city in the shadow of the Alps and in the ancient Slovakian capital Bratislava when big Emile Heskey couldn't touch the ball without hearing grotesque versions of the sound of the jungle?

It was bad enough to make the flesh crawl but then, if those of who are required to travel down the thoroughfares and the byways of the world game are very honest, we have to say it wasn't much of a surprise. Racism is commonplace in large swathes of southern and eastern Europe, as it is here and in America, but the difference is that in football the issue has been confronted with impressive diligence. Also, of course, there was an earlier need here for anti-racist campaigning before 25 per cent of the Premiership was made up of black players.

It is true there are many black players in places like Spain and Italy but the spillage of institutionalised prejudice into football has never been properly treated. In northern Italy, where around every corner you are likely to confront some jewel of the Renaissance, there is a powerful conviction, especially among the working class, that Africa begins in Rome, and of course Africa is full of menace. It represents poverty and need and a threat to the good life in places like Milan and the Veneto. It is a breeding ground for fears and hatred casually expressed in a football stadium, and of course the Fascistic ultras have long been strongly established, and targeting football in Spain.

So what does England do? Make powerful demands for action, and perhaps remember that today's high consciousness of the problem hasn't always been so. In the Seventies Clyde Best, one of the first black players in English football, complained of relentless abuse, and so it went on through the decades. John Barnes was abused in Brazil by English fans, and, though no one would admit it too freely, had to overcome deep-seated prejudice when he arrived on Merseyside.

There, a section of the Everton support was known to be among the more prejudiced fans in England, a theory they rather confirmed when they threw bananas on the field when Barnes appeared for Liverpool in his first local derby. That was a fate suffered by Mark Walters when he left Aston Villa for Rangers, after Graeme Souness performed the impressive double of signing the club's first Catholic and black players.

Now effective work by the Football Association, the Professional Footballers' Association and pressure groups has combined with the reality that most teams have a vital black presence on the field to make racism a spent force on the English terraces. It means that after the Bernabeu experience, the FA has excellent credentials to prosecute its attack on Spanish football values - off the field, that is.

On the field, the FA, of course, has immense work to do. The other reality of this week is that if the Spanish fans hadn't disgraced themselves so thoroughly, we would now be giving undivided attention to one of the most disgusting, and feeble performances, ever to carry the name of England.

There are three main planks of bitter complaint. Most depressing was the appalling behaviour of Wayne Rooney, a catastrophe that was only compounded by Sven Goran Eriksson's blithe assertion that he is not worried about the boy's future in the context of discipline.

Add to the Rooney fiasco the sense that Eriksson's devaluing of the friendly match as a test of his team's progress, and a chance to refine its work, had reached its final wretched harvest. The English performance, from Rooney's anarchy, through Gary Neville's sickening pursuit of his vendetta with Jose Antonio Reyes, to the pathetic failure of the midfield, where Nicky Butt's attempts to contain the superbly inventive Xavi were progressively embarrassing, we had a bleak picture of bankruptcy. If Eriksson complains that he can only make six substitutions, what belief can any of his players have in the significance of any match which does not offer competitive points? The result is the antithesis of the team-building of the great international dynasties.

Finally, there is the problem which no amount of smoke and mirrors can obscure. It is the desperate decline of David Beckham. The leading Madrid football paper Marca awarded him zero marks and put one word against his performance: Perdito - lost. There were times on Wednesday night when it was impossible to see the point of a search party. Beckham's irresponsibility, his lack of any positional sense, his posturing, even his basic failure to control the ball and retain possession, again called into question the leadership of Eriksson.

The coach is now surely obliged to analyse his captain's performance, not just in this game but in so many that went before, and face the reality that he has at the very least to examine his options. Maybe one is to give a proper run to the thrusting Wright-Phillips, who in 32 minutes, all of them plagued by racial abuse, managed to draw one point - out of three - from the stringent judge of Marca.

Eriksson might also consider recasting his midfield, perhaps deploying Frank Lampard on the right or finding a place for an Owen Hargreaves who emerged with such promise - and solid professional values - in a winning European Cup final a few years ago.

One point is self-evident. The pressure on Eriksson to do something is now immense. On the Beckham issue he should know that an ultimately irresistible consensus is forming. It is that the celebrity hero of English football is now living on old and distinctly flawed memory.

The rottenness of racism can never be said to be an ill wind blowing anyone any good. But Eriksson and Beckham will be less than honest with themselves if they do not grasp that the evil in the Bernabeu was for them a most convenient distraction.

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