James Lawton: Boycott threat shamed the heroes of '66

England crisis: World Cup winner Cohen condemns misplaced loyalty of players willing to put qualification for Euro 2004 in jeopardy
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The Independent Football

Shortly before England's players last night stepped back from a decision to strike that would have clouded the rest of their careers, and made any future statement of patriotism from them no more valuable than a bent penny, their behaviour was appraised from another planet.

It was one inhabited by a compatriot, George Cohen, who had once helped to win the World Cup ­ and who would not have contemplated rejecting the England shirt at the point of a bayonet.

Aggrieved, but proud and vindicated in their own minds, the England team presented themselves as martyrs to a cause. Of what cause? It was hard to say beyond defence of their team-mate Rio Ferdinand, who was the only one to walk away from a drug test and go to a shopping mall.

When these England players returned from Japan last summer, Cohen was invited to join the campaign to lay on a triumphant return for the team which had reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup. The proposal was for a parade through the streets of London and a reception at Downing Street. Cohen remained silent for some time, long enough for his caller to check if he was still on the line. "Yes, I'm still here," said Cohen.

The ensuing conversation was quite brief. It went like this: "Well, what about it George, don't you think the lads deserve a parade?"

"No, not really."

"Why not?"

"Because in my time we didn't get any prizes for finishing eighth."

Cohen, who has three times resisted the advances of cancer since winning the World Cup in 1966, received £1,000 along with the rest of his team-mates and squad members after his captain, Bobby Moore, had suggested those who had played the majority of games waive the appearance-money bonus.

Back then, on a night described as the most blissful in England since Victory in Europe, players' wives and girlfriends were banished to a side-room when the team and officials celebrated the greatest achievement in the history of English sport. Last summer, Cohen noted that the squad had negotiated a deal which would have paid each of them around £250,000 if a second World Cup was won. The wives and girlfriends of last night's potential strikers joined their menfolk in a luxury hotel in Dubai before the England party flew off for the tournament.

Last night Cohen was again taciturn when told that the England team were threatening not to get on the plane for Saturday's European Championship qualifier in Istanbul unless their team-mate Rio Ferdinand ­ dropped because he had failed to respond to a request for a routine drug test, a serious offence which in other sports could bring a two-year ban ­ was restored to the team.

There was, at first, another long pause ­ Cohen was a whippet of a full-back, a master of his trade, but nobody does the pregnant pause better. Then he said, quite softly: "This is simply beyond my comprehension. It is surely beyond belief and imagination that a group of English professional players, in any circumstances, would consider not playing for their country. And the reason! They are supporting a team-mate who has made a very serious mistake, broken an important rule.

"What do they think of the England shirt? What does it mean to them if they can even consider risking England's place in a major championship? What will the country think of this? What will the world think of this? I know the world has changed, but it will take a little time for this to sink in."

For those of us obliged to try to keep pace with the philosophical development of English football, who have been obliged to think of the Cohens and the Bobby Moores and the Geoff Hursts and the Nobby Stiles as the glorious fossils of another age, it was perhaps a little easier to absorb the day-long crisis of yesterday, when FA officials issued periodic statements that they were working towards "a solution".

We could handle it more easily, perhaps, because we didn't blast our way to World Cup glory and know that however the style of life changed in the next 30 or 40 years there would be an achievement, and a pride, which could never be broken. Where was the pride of England players yesterday in their schoolboyish bonding?

Who did they think they were helping? Rio Ferdinand? Did they really think the FA could re-instate him yesterday and still have a scrap of credibility. What kind of intelligent understanding of the situation was that?

They might have called Ferdinand and given him all their support on a personal level. They may have pointed out he had a made serious mistake but that he was still their friend and, hopefully, would soon be restored as their team-mate. But not playing for England? Not understanding the pressure on the FA against playing in an important international someone who had broken one of the fundamental rules governing the professional life of a top player?

The behaviour of Manchester United and the Professional Footballers' Association could only accentuate the sense of a game that had lost all grasp of its priorities and responsibilities. United say Ferdinand has been treated appallingly. They say the FA have ridden over his rights. At no point do they appear to have considered the seriousness of Ferdinand's offence. Perhaps they don't understand it, and that all the claims by Ferdinand that he doesn't take drugs do not deflect us from the fact that he walked away from a test it was his duty to take. He was clean 36 hours later. Of course he may have been clean when he should have been taking the test, but drug testing doesn't work like this. United say Ferdinand should have remained innocent until proven guilty. But his guilt has already been established. The rule has been broken.

And last night, Ferdinand's team-mates, led by their lauded captain, David Beckham, were, after finally agreeing to get on the plane, saying that they and their manager had been let down down by the ruling body. But they preened themselves on displaying great team spirit. They had been one for all and all for one. It all sounded quite pretty, even noble. But it didn't impress George Cohen, who knows about team spirit and winning the greatest prize of all in an England shirt. He was still on that other planet where playing for your country is not a matter of negotiation. Or foot stamping.