James Lawton: Cole and Milner should stop this sorry pretence that it's not all about the money

One problem with being led about by agents who attach a lead to the ring in your nose is that you don't get much time to look around and see the effects of such relentlessly prosecuted greed.

It is something that footballers like Joe Cole and James Milner in particular and the Premier League in general really ought to consider.

This week, at a time when confidence in the buoyancy of the national game, even its ability to recognise some of its problems, is probably at an all-time low, the neglect of such reflection has created public relations from hell.

Joe Cole arrived at Anfield announcing he had signed for Liverpool not because they had come up with the best terms – which would have been fair enough in any open market – but because they were still the biggest club in England and that by joining them he was enhancing his chances of fulfilling some higher career destiny.

Meanwhile, James Milner was insisting through third parties that he never asked to leave his most loyal fans at Villa Park, a statement flatly contradicted by Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill's report of a meeting with the player and his agent.

Cole and Milner and their agents should do everyone a service. They should not quite so crassly insult all those who still retain a flicker of interest in the prospects of the new season – and a league which has fallen back so drastically in its ranking as the powerhouse of the European club game and whose short-sighted policies are now so widely, and so incontrovertibly, linked with the embarrassing failure of English football to even brush the surface of competition at the World Cup.

Pile their snouts into the trough, if they like, but do not seek to preserve the facade of shirt-kissing commitment to anything much else but the numbers on next month's pay-slip.

It is getting a little late for all of that, as it is for the idea that the Premier League can any longer pay lip serve to concern for the future of the national game while steadily reducing the opportunities for home-grown players who for one reason or another do not make it to the high-earning plateau of a Cole or a Milner.

The jury may still be out in measuring the historic status of the new world and reigning European champions, Spain, but when the president of La Liga, Jose Luis Astiazaran, recently pointed out certain differences between the recruiting practices of his league and England's he was describing a cultural division as high and as broad as the Pyrenees.

Seventy-five per cent of La Liga players are qualified to represent the national team. In the Premier League the figure is 33 per cent. If, as seems increasingly likely, Milner signs for Manchester City, he will represent no more than one fifth of the club's summer transfer ambitions, with David Silva (Spain), Yaya Touré (Ivory Coast) and Jérôme Boateng (Germany) aboard and the Serbian Aleksandar Kolarov waiting impatiently on the jetty.

It means that while City, with another burst of £100m investment in their chances of out-pricing the opposition, seek to dominate a league with an ever decreasing home-grown population, most domestic fans who can look a little further than their own emotional barricades have to resign themselves to the fact that club football's most compelling story will doubtless unfold in Spain. Barcelona versus Real Madrid, Pep Guardiola against Jose Mourinho, is a drama of will and philosophy that dwarfs anything available here.

That collision is marvellously basic in the forces it throws against each other. Guardiola's team, the foundation of all the Spanish success, will seek to re-assert the ascendancy of a beautiful game, prove that Mourinho's success with Internazionale last season was a strange, grim mutation of football fate. Some believe that Mourinho is capable of anything, even challenging Barça at their own game, but it is the most fanciful notion with no roots in any of his extraordinary achievements thus far. His game is to seek out, and exploit, the weakness of others. Guardiola's is to win on entirely his own terms.

Of course, the Premier League will offer a menu that was appealing enough to a worldwide TV audience for so long, but this time it will have a diminishing number of superstars who believe it is their natural home. Arguably its most creative performer, Cesc Fabregas, will be playing maybe one last season under sufferance at the Emirates, with the super-competent Javier Mascherano seeking, plainly, to escape Anfield, and home players such as Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard desperately in need of major repairs to their images.

For the moment, who can say it is a natural battlefield for the great heroes of the world game? The poverty of England's response to the World Cup challenge makes nonsense of such an idea. Even the ultimate zealot Sir Alex Ferguson argues, as he goes off to North America and Mexico for a pre-season tour, for a mid-season break.

Wherever you turn there is a sense of diminished belief in the culture of the English game. It is a stunning reverse when you recall how it was in Moscow just over two years ago, when United and Chelsea fought out their Champions League final and a Spanish observer gasped: "What speed, what power ... it could only have been made in England".

There wasn't much power or speed in evidence in Rustenburg or Cape Town or Bloemfontein last month, and not much of anything, when you got right down to it, suggesting players like Milner and Cole were representing a football nation, and a league, that had anything of substance to offer at the highest level.

As we have seen these last few days, this has hardly checked the spiralling rewards. However, it is still no reason for English football not to recognise an ever-growing potential for muted applause.

Murali deserves our acclaim for his passion and will

Ambivalence surrounding the departure of the extraordinary Muttiah Muralitharan from the Test stage is inevitable. His action, created by freakish physical circumstances, has caused at least as many debates as the 800 wickets he claimed with such unswerving passion.

It is hard to dispute seriously the case of those, among whom my colleague Stephen Brenkley was in eloquent form this week, who say that cricket has an over-riding duty to preserve the purity of its form – and that Muralitharan's success was a dangerous temptation to a generation of would-be imitators. Yet Murali passed all the tests that were put before him and if he never persuaded all of his critics that he bowled with the angels, no one has doubted the strength of his will or his ability to believe in the power and the legality of his talent.

For that he deserved the accolades that came to him from within a game that, for all its failings and shoddy diversions, should still be congratulated for recognising a moral dilemma when it sees one – and also a competitor who never ceased to fight for everyone's respect.

Riders on the storm of moral uncertainty

As lance Armstrong rides glumly towards Paris, he represents so much of the pain and the glory and the moral uncertainties of the Tour de France.

Despite the scandals of recent years, the irreversible conviction of many that chemical assistance will always be sought, its fascination – and coverage – remains unabated. Why? Maybe because it takes men to their very limits, not just in order to win but survive.

One early memory that will always remain vivid is of the fine Irish rider Sean Kelly being massaged in his small hotel room near the end of the race. His body was covered in boils. "It's always the same," you were told. "At this point the body begins to break down."

Perhaps this is what the great Jacques Anquetil had in mind when, many years after his glory, he appeared on French television and mocked questions about drug use. He pointed out that the riders go through the cold and the heatwaves and the rain in the mountains and so they have the right to treat themselves as they wish. "Leave me in peace," he added. "Everybody takes dope." Was this morally untenable? Of course. But then could not the same be said of the demands made on the men who ride to a version of hell at the bidding of corporate sponsors? The morally unequivocal should form a queue – and see if it reaches the end of the block.

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